We Can Learn from the German Workforce Development Model

By Eli Dile
IEDC, Washington, DC

Germany is a manufacturing powerhouse, due in large part to its centralized, regulated, and adaptable system of vocational education. In 2012, the German Mission in the United States launched the Skills Initiative, a program to encourage sustainable workforce development in the United States by teaching best practices from Germany’s “dual system” of vocational education. The initiative brings together German and American businesses and educational institutions to align academic curriculum with businesses’ needs. The Skills Initiative has helped create apprenticeship programs at the state and local level across the United States.

ED Now visited the German Embassy in Washington, D.C., and sat down with Hermann Nehls, counselor of Labor, Health, and Social Affairs and Dr. Karsten Hess, counselor of Science and Technology for a discussion on Germany’s approach to workforce development and ways it could be adapted in the United States.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

ED Now: How does Germany’s dual system of vocational education work?

Nehls: It is called the dual system because part of the student’s time is spent as an apprentice at a company where he or she earns a wage, and the other part is spent in the classroom. Upon graduation, apprentices receive an industry certification that is recognized throughout the country because the training process is standardized. All vocational training is regulated under federal law, established in 1969 under the Vocational Training Act.

It’s a tripartite system that incorporates government, businesses, and organized labor to develop curriculum that is responsive to the needs of firms. There are around 330 occupations recognized throughout Germany, which are all defined by a consensus between unions and firms. To become certified, apprentices must pass a test – which is also designed by collaboration between firms and labor unions – and each year the exam is updated to reflect changes in technology.

What are the biggest strengths of the dual system?

Nehls: The dual system is very adept at responding to labor market needs. We have a special focus on comprehensive skills, taking quite a broad view on skill development. A high level of competence makes the labor market very flexible. Germany does not have a lot of natural resources, so we focus on exports. We are totally reliant upon the quality of our products, and quality demands a high level of skills competence.

It seems to me that American companies don’t want to invest in training someone who can easily leave for another job. We don’t have that problem in Germany. Workers have a high level of identification with their workplace, and our certification system allows firms to identify individuals with the relevant skills for a vacant position.

Hess: For students, the advantage of the dual system is that it opens the labor market faster. As an apprentice, you can begin to make money earlier than someone who pursues a bachelor’s degree. You finish your education with no debt and even earn a small salary while you learn.

A common complaint in the United States is that our system of workforce development is too “supply-driven.” How do German companies and labor unions make sure vocational curriculum is relevant to available jobs?

Nehls: Firms have a large say in what is taught because our chambers of commerce actually write the apprentice exams. A notable difference between Germany and the United States is that German companies are required to join a chamber of commerce, and they must pay for membership.

“You must get companies away from the thinking that prioritizes short-term profits. Developing skills requires long-term thinking.”

But labor unions play a large role as well and help design training curriculum and certification tests. Without trade unions there would be no dual system. They are a key partner for when it’s time to update training to align with new technologies and employer needs. They’re the ones who know what’s happening on the shop floor.

It’s probably unrealistic to think we could copy and paste the dual system in the United States. But what are some elements that we could implement here, and how can the United States expand apprenticeship programs?

Nehls: Yes, there are historical and societal differences that would make full adoption virtually impossible in the United States. So you want a system that is not copied but inspired from the dual system.

First, you need a thorough understanding of the linkage between education and the labor market. Generally, in the United States, business and education operate totally independent of one another. Also, you need better awareness of the importance of having a high-skilled workforce and for more people to understand that this is critical for the U.S. economy.

To create a quality apprenticeship program, you must begin with a strong system of governance. It’s important to establish at least a minimum standard for occupational definitions. When developing certification exams, you need a high level of transparency. And it needs to be standardized, so you have a certification that is recognized in other states.

It is most likely that the impetus to expand apprenticeships will come from the private sector. It would make sense to first start working with larger companies with many employees. But you must get companies away from the thinking that prioritizes short-term profits. Developing skills requires long-term thinking.

Hess: One of the most advanced U.S. apprenticeship models we’ve seen at the city level is in Chattanooga at the Volkswagen plant. Stakeholder cooperation is very strong there, to the point where the local chamber of commerce designs the apprentice test. And once apprentices complete their training and pass the test, they receive a certification that is even recognized in Germany.

Nehls: At the state level, I think the best example is Minnesota. Last year, Minnesota passed an apprenticeship law that establishes state-wide standards for vocational curriculum and occupational definitions. I think they have the most developed framework. It was based heavily on the dual system, and the governor even visited Germany to learn from our model.

In the United States, parents and society as a whole tend to push young people toward a bachelor’s degree. And there’s often a stigma attached to those who attend a community or technical college. Youth who go this route are sometimes regarded by their peers as…

Nehls: Losers?

Yes, unfortunately. Is this also true in Germany? And if so, how do you dispel the sector’s negative image and encourage young people to pursue a career in manufacturing?

Hess: One thing we always tell young people is we have a lot of CEOs who started as apprentices. Apprenticeships are seen as a means to further develop your education and to open new opportunities. It is not viewed as a “dead end.” From our perspective, it isn’t inferior to a four-year college degree but is parallel to other forms of education.

Nehls: I think in the United States, most parents have a perception of a “gold standard” of education which idealizes the bachelor’s degree and ignores other opportunities. You are told to work hard in high school to prepare for a four-year college, and if you don’t follow this path, you’ve made a mistake. This is not the case for Germany and Switzerland because vocational training is regarded as a central pillar of the education system. In Germany, there is an eight-level scheme with clearly defined quality standards that ranks our degrees. A traditional bachelor’s degree is level six, a master’s is seven, and a PhD is eight. In vocational education, you can reach levels six and seven. This is not a system for “losers.”

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