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College & Workforce Readiness Opinion

For American Workforce Training, Look to the German Model

By Letitia Zwickert — May 22, 2017 7 min read
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Editor’s Note: What if the U.S. had a German-style dual education system where all students could more easily access work-based learning opportunities? Letitia Zwickert, a high school teacher at Naperville Central High School and a K-12 Education Advisor to the University of Illinois’ International Outreach Council, explores. This post part of our ongoing partnership with Advance CTE’s Learning that Works! blog.

As we near the end of another academic year, we see many of our high school students leaving to take on the world of higher education. In 2016, 69.7 percent of students were enrolled in college. However, this leaves 30 percent of students not involved in a degreed program—where are they headed? Has our education system served them to the best of its ability? And of those students enrolled in a degree program, 40 percent will end up dropping out of college. We need to ask ourselves if we are doing all we can to create opportunities for success for all of our students.

Some of our high school students find themselves with course options that do not serve their needs or interests, leaving them without realistic paths to finding a career. Most of our school districts continue to cater to the traditional college-bound student. And yet, a four-year college degree is not necessarily the right path for all students. Students who are socio-economically disadvantaged, or who face other struggles, have more hurdles to overcome and must work harder than others to achieve the same results. In the end, these students face a greater challenge to finding successful employment.

Add to this a crisis in our labor pool. The skills gap in the U.S. will leave more than two million jobs vacant in skilled manufacturing and information technology over the next decade. STEM entered the education discussion some years ago, pushing schools to offer new courses, moving students to double up on math and science classes, and leading to numerous education workshops, conferences, and seminars across the country. These adjustments and discussions have not fixed the significant skills gap and have made little progress toward increasing equity.

The German Dual Education System

In the last half decade, Germany has entered the conversation regarding the U.S. education system. Germany ranks 5th as an American trading partner. They have invested heavily in the United States, with approximately 3,700 German-owned businesses in our country, and have deep incentives to create good conditions for economic growth.

German companies have taken note of the skills gap and training challenges they are facing in the United States. According to German American Trade Quarterly, in 2015, 65 percent of German-American companies reported difficulties finding employees with the skill set they needed, up from 49 percent just the year before, putting investment in education and training at the top of “the reform agenda of German companies.” Consequently, the German American Chamber of Commerce (GACC) brought in a not-so-secret, but very powerful weapon to support businesses: “dual education.”

Germany’s dual system of vocational education and training (VET) dates back to the middle ages. The system partners technical schools and businesses, allowing students to combine training in advanced areas of manufacturing or technology while getting on-the-job work experience at a company. Studies are paid and jobs are salaried. An Atlantic article, Jobs For Americans: A Lesson From Germany, shares, “Germany’s educational system incorporates courses that give students a general sense of various careers, but much of its success springs from the generous support that the country’s corporations give to on-site apprenticeship programs—part of a system in which companies are required to support training programs through their local chambers of commerce. As a result, apprenticeship programs are integral to employers.”

The perception of dual education in Germany also contributes to its success there. In Germany, vocational training doesn’t come with the stigma it does in the United States. In fact, 50 percent of college-bound German students who decide not to go to university end up choosing a vocational training path instead. Dual education offers a viable way to achieve any student’s goals, allowing for the freedom to earn money while learning and gaining experience.

American Vocational Education Traditions

Back in the U.S., there is historical precedent for vocational training. The apprenticeships that once helped establish young workers in the early years of our country declined as the industrial revolution led to factory jobs that no longer required long hours of training. Around this time, Horace Mann began his push for universal education and the opening of large numbers of public schools. With the decline in the availability of youth and the rise in the need for specialized workers, eventually the Smith-Hughes Act of 1917 was passed, which promoted vocational education in public schools and formed the Federal Board for Vocational Education.

But by the 1950s, tracking was in vogue and vocational training began to be seen as a remedial track, according to Nicholas Wyman. Tracking students soon lost popularity when equity issues arose, and a new push to prepare all students for college began. But, vocational training continued to be perceived as a “lower” option outside of mainstream education. Amy Scott, a Senior Education correspondent at Marketplace wrote, “For a long time...skilled trades have been seen as somehow less valuable than white-collar jobs. What used to be known as vocational training in high school had a reputation as a dead-end track for struggling kids, or for failing to prepare students for in-demand jobs.”

The German Skills Initiative

German companies recognized these problems, and the German government took the opportunity to share best practices by working to implement and adapt the German dual-education model in the United States. In 2012, the German Embassy in Washington, DC, announced cooperation with 17 U.S. states to support vocational training programs through the Skills Initiative.

The German American Chamber of Commerce began spearheading the effort across the country. For instance, the German American Chamber of Commerce Midwest (GACC Midwest) created the Illinois Consortium for Advanced Technical Training (ICATT), which partners with 27 Illinois companies with five colleges. Herrmann Ultrasonics is one of the companies that has signed on with a technical school, and offering its students a vocational training program as either an Industrial Maintenance Technician or a CNC Machining Professional.

These partnerships work to address our labor gap and in doing so shed light on the type of skills and education level our businesses need. German conglomerate Siemens AG began their vocational training partnership in Charlotte in 2011. According to an article in the New York Times: “‘In our factories, there’s a computer about every 20 to 30 feet,’ said Eric Spiegel, who recently retired as president and chief executive of Siemens U.S.A. ‘People on the plant floor need to be much more skilled than they were in the past. There are no jobs for high school graduates at Siemens today.’”

Importance of Work-Based Learning

Yet, a traditional four-year degree may not be necessary. As Marketplace’s Amy Scott writes, “research has shown that people who earn short-term certificates in fields like computer and information services or mechanical engineering can earn even more than people with bachelor’s degrees.”

Programs combining student training with employment can have enormous impact. These initiatives help us address the needs of every student, and help our society better adapt to an ever-changing world. And, thanks in large part to the efforts of GACC, there has been an increase in the number of people involved in apprenticeships, but still more needs to be done.

If we want to achieve real impact for all of our students, and the best possible translation of dual education, we need to address three issues. First, we must open the lines of communication between business and education to establish mutual trust and understanding. Second, we need to engage in constructive dialogue, involving all stakeholders, that reevaluates both the framing and narrative of apprenticeships, as well as potential for their implementation and scope (for instance, opening up programs in computer science and other high skills, high needs areas). Third, creative thought needs to be put into new methods of sharing the advantages of participating in apprenticeships to a broader, more representative group of society.

Looking to a future that offers a U.S. system-wide version of dual education as a viable option across sectors, with free education and paid work experience at its core, I see unlimited opportunity for the growth of our economy, and, very importantly, a more equitable system supporting all students’ potential.

Connect with Letitia and Heather on Twitter.

The opinions expressed in Global Learning are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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