by Heinz Riehl and Ingo Walter
“The Germans are bad, really bad,” President Trump tweeted a few weeks ago. How’s that? He really meant “They’re good, really good. So good at competing in world markets, that they’re really bad.”
So how come President Trump this week gave a speech on the need to take the modern “apprenticeship” pages from the German playbook and make the case for opening a new chapter on the US professional labor force - one that can compete more effectively with the best-trained and most productive workers around the world? Adapting the apprenticeship model to US conditions, currently pretty much limited to German companies manufacturing here, has a lot of potential but requires some new thinking.
America’s economic challenges today include labor shortages in key high-skill vocations – set against a large overhang of young people lacking marketable qualifications. True, the US is not producing enough technicians, programmers and engineers who understand “the hard stuff.” But we fall particularly short at the lower end of the skills spectrum, including plenty of college grads looking for meaningful work or functionally underemployed. Nor are these same college grads particularly good candidates for the many high-paying positions for skilled manufacturing workers, technicians and specialists.
Many are weighted-down by uneven high school preparation, lack of focus, and illusions about the world of work. So what else is new? Sounds like many of us at age eighteen. The obvious question is, should everyone go to college? The standard American answer has been “yes,” even though we are perhaps doing a disservice to young people who end up after 4-6 years of college, perhaps as better human beings but no better trained for productive employment than the latest crop of high school grads.
This reality contrasts sharply not only with the usual suspects like China and India, whose young people have voracious appetites for applied education and training, but also countries in “Old Europe,” like Germany, which has performed superbly in global markets and absorbing the unemployed despite high prevailing wages. Germany bounced back faster and better from the Great Recession than most countries, and one reason may be a more effective approach to vocation-oriented education and training. Germany eschews traditional university education for all in favor of challenging, highly structured apprenticeships — distinctly different from US-style on-the-job training.
German-type apprenticeship programs are tough to get into and complete. They combine practical training with classroom education equivalent to two years of college. Tracing their roots back to the medieval Guilds, apprenticeships continue to provide a path to professional success path for young people, even in a high-tech world.
Classic apprenticeships — more recently renamed “dual education”— are available for hundreds of professions, ranging from crafts like auto mechanics, bakers, chimney sweeps, masons, electricians, and opticians to tax accountants, insurance agents, restauranteurs and hoteliers. Apprentice-based careers include telecommunications, business analytics-based agriculture, marketing, public relations, and medical care.
Following secondary education, around age 16, professional education and training occurs predominantly via the "dual" system — "dual" because the know-how and skills for each profession are conveyed in two distinct settings: (1) A company, business, or workplace for the practical component; and (2) A related professional trade school for the more academic education content. Dual education takes between two and three years, with the apprentice working three or four days every week for the employer and attending professional trade school for one or two days. Besides the cost of training, the employer pays a modest wage.
The professional trade schools complement the practical learning with a profession-specific yet comprehensive, college-style education. Bakers learn the chemical composition of yeast and flour, bankers learn the difference between a mortgage and a loan secured by real estate, and all apprentices learn how federal, state, and local governments are organized and how elections work. Employers and schools cooperate closely. Importantly, apprentices are exposed in their employer’s business to mature, skilled, and professional adults as successful role models.
The typical apprenticeship concludes with a government-supervised examination confirming the successful apprentice as a certified professional in his or her occupation. Certification almost always leads to successful placement in a permanent position. The system also provides additional full-time schooling in a "master class," which again ends with a state-supervised examination. So the more ambitious can go on to become “master craftspeople,” supervising others and educating subsequent generations of apprentices. Only businesses employing one or more “masters” may hire apprentices, so there is always someone from whom young people can learn.
Germany’s arrangement is a successful model that can be adapted to provide job opportunities and well-paid careers for US high school grads — a time-tested system we could emulate to generate more skilled workers who can compete with the best craftspeople in global markets and create goods and services that people want to buy. The model is technologically robust and adaptable to disruptive technologies. And it is a ready-made approach to promote entrepreneurship among small and medium-size businesses — where the bulk of new jobs are created — and to rebuild the American middle class. Next time you call an electrician, see if the guy isn’t dreaming about going into business for himself and starting an electrical contracting business.
President Trump is onto something. As usual, the devil is in the details. But the idea has legs. We should learn from the apprenticeship masters of the Old World. With the right incentives, there are plenty of benefits to be had.