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Would German-Style Apprenticeships Work in the U.S.?


Apprentices for control engineering  pictured at education and technology center of the chamber of handicrafts in Leipzig, Germany

Photograph by Waltraud Grubitzsch/dpa/Corbis

Apprentices for control engineering pictured at education and technology center of the chamber of handicrafts in Leipzig, Germany

In a world of high youth unemployment, where the supply of skilled labor often fails to match employer demand, Germany believes help can be found in its Dual Vocational Training System (TVET)—a time-tested economic model now incorporated into the Federal Republic’s law. This program, many supporters believe, is the reason why Germany has the lowest jobless rate among young people of any industrialized nation in the world—around 7 percent or 8 percent. With so many Americans struggling to find employment after graduating high school and college it might be worth asking: Can the German approach be brought to the U.S.?

The German concept is simple: After students complete their mandatory years of schooling, usually around age 18, they apply to a private company for a two or three year training contract. If accepted, the government supplements the trainee’s on-the-job learning with more broad-based education in his or her field of choice at a publicly funded vocational school. Usually, trainees spend three to four days at work and one to two in the classroom. At the end, the theory goes, they come out with both practical and technical skills to compete in a global market, along with a good overall perspective on the nature of their profession. They also receive a state certificate for passing company exams, designed and administred by industry groups—a credential that allows transfer to similarly oriented businesses should the training company not retain them beyond the initial contract.

The advantages are clear. TVET ensures there’s a job ready for every young person enrolled in vocational school, because no one is admitted unless an employer has already offered a training contract. No job offer, no admission. In this way, there is less risk of heartbreak when years of hard work in university go unrewarded by an unforgiving market. Students also know what they’re getting before the first day of class. This contrasts with the U.S., where many young individuals take on exorbitant amounts of debt to attend college and grad school, only to find no placement on the other end.

“We need to address the issue of skills, because now we’re more interested in degress than in credentials,” says Assistant U.S. Secretary of Labor Jane Oates. “Since 2009 we have had a growing number of four-year college graduates unable to get sound wages in their areas of study.” Oates believes that vocational and technical training will lead to lower youth unemployment over the next 10 years, especially with emphasis on a new hybrid model based on cooperation with local community colleges, where an apprentice can earn credits toward his or her degree while earning money, and learning, on the job. Essentially, this work-school program is equivalent to the German model.

But the apprenticeship model faces significant obstacles in the U.S.

“Thus far, the U.S. corporate sector does not see technical and vocational training as one of its key responsibilities,” says Andreas Koenig, Head of Section, Vocational Training & Labour Markets at the Economic Development & Employment Department in Germany. “It is therefore not yet ready to invest in technical and vocational education and training that goes beyond a few weeks of induction or learning on the job.”

Indeed, a need to change the culture of the industrialized world is a point Koenig and his colleagues made repeatedly during a presentation of the TVET model at the German Mission to the U.N. in New York last week. To create an effective system, many advanced nations must lose the stigma attached to vocational and technical school as a fallback for those who have failed in higher education.  Rather, the training system should be embraced because it works, as the German youth unemployment rate shows.

Also standing in the way of the dual system’s acceptance is the antiregulatory fervor shared by many American corporations. As Yorck Sievers from the German Chambers of Industry and Commerce points out, efforts of private industry must be harmonized to fund and make the system effective. Companies would have to accept state oversight of training, which generates overhead expenses.

But to proponents, the immediate cost pays for itself in the form of a more skilled economy. “German VET builds competence and real ability in blue and in white collar jobs,” writes Sievers, who says the trainees benefit from their acquired technical abilities in a globalized market economy. “They find jobs easier these days, get paid better, and work under much better conditions.”

Other countries are starting to notice. Germany, through its Chambers of Industry and Commerce (DIHK), has launched pilot programs all over the world, including in Madagascar. Each speaker at the U.N. TVET conference last week emphasized that the model must be tailored to meet the needs of individual nations, even while the general concept is maintained from place to place as a solution to the mismatch between the supply of students and the demand of employers.

In the U.S., Trumph, a German company specializing in laser technologies and machine tools, has initiated an apprenticeship program at its Farmington (Conn.) plant. And Siemens is also getting in on the act in the U.S. “For us [DIHK] promoting business worldwide and in the U.S. … is of special imporance,” says Sievers, who also notes that despite the current problems in the U.S. job market, there is actually an insufficient supply of workers with necessary technical skills to meet employer needs.

For Assistant Secretary Oates, what’s needed is a balanced approach. Once workers understand that their earnings power increases with technical skills, and once they come to realize that many vocational schools lead to sophisticated work rather than backbreaking labor, as was the case 30 years ago, she says the U.S. will see an influx of students into apprenticeship schools. But she stresses that it’s critical for the U. S. not to lose sight of what propelled it to the foreront of industry in the first place. “What makes America America is the commercialization of innovative ideas. We need people with technical skills, but also people who innovate to create jobs.”

Whether this dual model can ever, or should ever, rival university education is impossible to know at this stage. But the difficult job market for American high school and college grads, and the success of TVET in Germany, has made some consider what was previously unthinkable. ”In Germany, but even more in this country, there is still a strong preference for an academic education because of its better image and the prospect of a higher salary and steeper career path,” DIHK Sievers writes in an e-mail. ”Prospect, not guarantee! But remember, not everybody is suited for an academic education. Skilled workers are needed, though.”

Dolgow is an intern for Bloomberg Businessweek.

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