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America's School-to-Work Transition

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Herbert Ringele is a "meister'' or tutor at the ABB plant in Baden, Switzerland. He helps supervise the training of first- and second-year apprentices, most of whom are 16 to 19 years old, for this multinational corporation which is headquartered in Switzerland and, through its many affiliates, employs nearly 250,000 people worldwide. In Baden, ABB not only operates its own training facility, but also runs an on-site, government-financed secondary school for 150 young apprentices preparing for careers in energy- and electronics-related industries.

Like most of the workers at the plant, including current managers, Mr. Ringele is a product of apprenticeship, and can't imagine a better way to prepare young people for productive jobs. To illustrate this point, he shows us an easel and butcher-block paper he used the day before when teaching a class to apprentices. Left from the lesson was a simple graph he had created, showing the distribution of apprentice opinions on two variables: the effort they put forth for their schoolwork and the effort expended in the practical, work-based segment of their training. The vertical bar representing school showed all of the apprentices clustered at around 70 percent. For work effort, the same clustering existed, but at a much higher level--over 90 percent.

Heinz Oschenbein is the director of GIBB--a large vocational-training school that offers classroom training for about 4,000 of the 24,000 youth apprentices (again, mostly in the age range of 16 to 19) in the canton of Zurich. They attend his school either one or 1 days per week and spend the balance of their week as paid apprentices in hundreds of firms not large enough to offer the full "package'' of training available at firms like ABB. His school also trains some 2,000 incumbent workers who receive further or more-advanced training. Several hundred different instructors teach youths and adults alike, and three-quarters of the instructors teach part time while holding full-time or nearly full-time jobs in the industries about which they teach.

Mr. Oschenbein, a historian by training, makes it clear that the use of part-time instructors for vocational education is a national policy, one which stresses parxivnah--the policy of keeping instruction "near the practice.'' He poses this rhetorical question: "Who better can teach young workers the theory which goes with the practice they get at work than people from the industry?''

Ole Myglegaard Anderson is the vice president of a huge food-industry training center in Roskilde, Denmark, less than an hour from Copenhagen, which serves nearly 14,000 students, and operates a slaughterhouse, a catering service, a restaurant, and a small market. It is one of 120 such nationally supported commercial- and technical-training schools available to young Danes beginning around age 16. Though funded primarily by the national government of this country of six million people, the Roskilde Slagteriskilen (literally "slaughter school'') is run by a board of directors dominated by the industry it serves. As with other such schools, the governing board has two local-government representatives; all others are chosen by national trade committees from nominations made by local branches of the industry associations and trade unions.

We cite these three examples of European vocational-training practice and governance because of the deep concern we have about the way in which U.S. policy may be heading under President Clinton's proposed "school-to-work opportunities act,'' which is nearing final approval in Congress. At the heart of our concern is the enormous inertia that exists in the United States to maintain educators' dominance in the offering of vocational training for American youths who do not immediately choose four-year colleges as their path to training for work.

If there is a single feature which distinguishes our European competitors, it is the industry-driven nature of their training for young people. School-to-work transition occurs in Germany, in Denmark, in Switzerland--the three countries we recently visited--through a system of social partners. While the partners include all parties, government, education, and industry, the term "social partners'' is conventionally used to refer to the industry side, that is, the network of trade associations or chambers of commerce and trade unions. At all levels, national, regional/state, and local, industry--a combination of management and worker representatives--drives the system. They set the standards. They oversee the school-based training which complements the paid work experience that is the essential, dominant component of training. And they shape and oversee the system of examinations which result in the certification of skills acquired. This certification is recognized by employers throughout their nations, and, increasingly, across Western Europe.

By contrast, vocational training in the United States isalmost entirely a school-based enterprise, one plagued at the high school level by the low status that comes from being part of institutions geared primarily to helping students meet the entrance requirements of four-year colleges. Past studies of the effectiveness of high school vocational education have yielded discouraging results: Vocational graduates, with some notable exceptions, do no better in the labor market than those students who pursue the "general track,'' the watered-down version of the college-prep curriculum.

The pending school-to-work bill is designed in part to address the past failures of high school vocational training. But will the reforms it calls for lead to the serious engagement of business and workers' organizations in training programs for youths?

While the bill emphasizes workplace learning and connections with business partners, it provides no clear incentive for the employers whose cooperation we believe is prerequisite to any serious reform effort. In short, we fear that the federal initiative may perpetuate a system which continues to be educator-dominated. It will be a case of missing social partners.

Our visit last fall, sponsored by the German Marshall Fund and the Center for Learning and Competitiveness at the University of Maryland, was intended to gain insights into ways to develop an American version of what are perhaps the two most stunning accomplishments of the European systems--their large-scale coverage and their systemic approach. We found the European systems are guided by three well-accepted assumptions about preparing young people for productive careers: First, of course, is the clear understanding that education and training for work is the broad responsibility of all the social partners, with industry in the lead position. In this country, we assume that schools bear this responsibility almost entirely on their own. Second, Europeans accept young people as part of the mainstream workforce, across most industries, both as workers and learners. Here, high school youths are working in great numbers, but most are concentrated in fast-food and retail-sales jobs, which are disconnected from their education. Finally, standards, set and recognized by industry, along with industry-coordinated comprehensive examinations, drive education and training in Europe, in contrast to our "seat time'' approach to certifying young people as competent.

The contrast between American practices and what we saw in Europe is striking. In the United States, there is no organized constituency of employers advocating for the level of skills training found in most apprenticeship programs. We continue to live and work in two different worlds--one of education, the other of work. While they exist side by side, they hardly interact and there are few bridges between them, especially for young people not planning to continue their studies in college.

We believe that the single most important objective for implementing the coming school-to-work act should be the serious engagement of industry in setting standards, organizing examinations, advising on curriculum, and providing students with learning opportunities at the workplace--both paid and unpaid. We offer the following advice to all parties who will be involved in implementing the new act:

  • Build industry-led institutions at the local level. The United States needs self-governing, continuously supported industry structures to administer work-based learning at the local level and operate as an effective means to provide quality control in the training. In short, we need to devise American counterparts to German chambers of commerce or Swiss business associations and find ways to support them on a permanent basis. In all three countries we studied, public authority is used to raise the funds for the administration of school-to-work programs, but the private sector has the pre-eminent role in controlling the use of those funds.

In the United States, similar local entities could be partially funded through a combination of revenue mechanisms such as proceeds from tax abatements, through tax-reduction schemes that divert a portion of the reduced taxes into a dedicated training fund, or grants from state and federal governments. Funding from foundations can provide helpful seed money for a few pilot sites to start the system.

These entities need to be organized by industry group as well as by geographic area. Existing trade associations, chambers, business/education groups, trade unions, and related organizations should be the foundation upon which such a new system is constructed.

Under the school-to-work bill, such local entities are to be formed as "partnerships'' between employers, secondary and postsecondary educators, and employee representatives, together with community-organizations, local governments, nonprofits, rehabilitation agencies, etc. This participation by a variety of parties beyond business is likely to dilute the industry voice, which is already very fragile. As a remedy, some way should be devised to establish the industry boards separately and independently and then integrate them with other groups in the community partnership.

  • Determine incentives for employers. It is clear that America will be unable to mount a large-scale, permanent school-to-work effort simply on the basis of employer good will. American employers must perceive school-to-work reform as being in their economic interest as well. Given the short-run orientation of most American firms, this will not be easily achieved without financial incentives offered by government.

Most Europeans have a strong distaste for subsidizing employers to train apprentices. They fear that subsidies may lead to greater intervention and encroachment on what are viewed as private-sector decisions. Yet most countries resort to subsidies (usually on a temporary basis) when hard-pressed to provide training slots. Wilfried Prewo, the chief executive officer of the Chamber of Industry and Commerce in Hanover--who is familiar with both Germany and America, having studied and worked in both countries--strongly advised us that at least at the beginning American companies starting training would need a "generous tax credit'' to overcome the "free rider'' (a significant problem which occurs if only a few firms train and their completing trainees are snatched up by other firms). He recommended using the tax-credit approach because he saw it as the least interventionist approach to subsidizing the training of apprentices.

  • Include workers in the process. In Europe, employers and labor unions are the key parties in governance, with educators often serving in a nonvoting role. Workers and their unions are concerned about developing broad training and building transferable skills that are truly portable. Workers also bring irreplaceable detailed knowledge of the jobs that is essential for designing appropriate training.

Without an adequate voice in the training process, workers may fail to cooperate in passing their skills to younger workers. This is especially common, for example, if incumbent workers feel insecure aboutmaintaining their jobs or if they believe that the young trainees and new hires are receiving far better training opportunities than were available to them.

The small percentage of union workers and confrontational labor-management relations in the United States complicate the task of including a worker voice in the process. In the absence of unions or worker councils, finding appropriate ways to articulate the perspectives and concerns of workers becomes a significant challenge.

  • Develop national frameworks. While it is clear that local industry must drive the system to be effective, industry representatives will need a lot of guidance, especially at the beginning. U.S. industry simply has too little experience in designing and implementing work-based learning and integrating it with school-based learning. Such guidance can come in part from the development of national skills standards which become the minimum requirements for local programs.

Under the Clinton Administration's proposals, national skills standards will be developed through industry consensus under the new National Skill Standards Board. But due to technical challenges and the political difficulties in building consensus across an industry, skills standards and assessments likely will take several years to develop and be put into place. Unfortunately, for most industries they will not be available at the beginning, when they are most needed to guide the system.

In anticipation of the development of a system of national skills standards, assessments, and certifications, it is worthwhile to examine more closely the standards-setting operations of the federal agency responsible for apprenticeship in Germany. It guides the entire national system, yet functions without a huge federal staff or budget. For under $30 million annually, the federal ministry is able to directly shape what happens with in-firm training, as well as the broad content of examinations, while strongly influencing the format and content of the curriculum in both firms and schools.

It is difficult to envision an organization in the United States that could exercise authority like the German ministry. A federal agency here appears highly unlikely to gain the acceptance of other social partners necessary to exercise the influence seen in Germany. However, there could be advantages for the United States in having a central mechanism for the development of skills standards and curriculum frameworks for use in vocational education. Such a process would result in the national government's working directly with industry, labor, and educators to develop in-firm training guidelines that could be used or adapted by state systems and local programs. Key industry organizations may appreciate having training guidelines that are developed nationally, rather than a series of unconnected and uncoordinated local standards.

There are many other concerns which we have regarding the implementation of the proposed act and the broader effort to provide needed opportunities for non-college-bound youths. We think that the school-to-work effort is being developed outside of the context of broader school reform and a much stronger alliance with the school-restructuring movement is badly needed. Nor are there the needed connections with efforts to modernize American industry and transform U.S. workplaces into high-performance organizations. We also wonder if sufficient attention will be given to the role of our nation's community colleges--the closest thing we currently have to a national system of training both for youths and current workers. And we are suspicious of any broad new system which is specifically geared toward non-college-bound students. New efforts to reach this population should not be couched in "non-college-bound'' language, and must leave options open for college admission, or they will face justifiable accusations of being a new form of tracking.

But these are small matters compared with the need to move toward a system that is truly industry-driven. The late Gregory Anrig, former state superintendent of education in Massachusetts and former president of the Educational Testing Service, nearly always made a point in his talks with the community that "education is too important to leave solely in the hands of the educators.'' This is doubly true when we focus on school-to-work transition. Without the social partners at the table at all levels, state, federal, and local, the school-to-work movement will be educator-driven, market insensitive, and, worst of all, not very engaging for the large proportion of young people who are bored in high school and who see little relationship between what they do in school and the world outside.

The full report of the Comparative Learning Team on Governance and Finance will be available in May from the Center for Learning and Competitiveness, School of Public Affairs, University of Maryland, College Park, Md. 20742.

Robert W. Glover is a research scientist for the Center for the Study of Human Resources at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs, University of Texas at Austin. He is working with the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce and the mayor to implement a school-to-work system in Austin. Alan Weisberg is a consultant with Foothill Associates, working on improving school-to-work opportunities for California youths, both at the state level and with schools and industry officials in several communities.

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