The president wants to transfer Germany’s vaunted job training model to the United States. Will it get lost in translation?
- By Paul HockenosPaul Hockenos is a Berlin-based journalist. His recent book is Berlin Calling: A Story of Anarchy, Music, the Wall and the Birth of the New Berlin (The New Press).
This month, Donald Trump’s widely perceived disdain for all things German found an exception.
The U.S. president signed an executive order providing funding for a new program that looks downright Teutonic: Trump wants the United States to have more apprenticeships, schemes designed to give would-be workers on-the-job training without attending college. The plan has echoes of Germany’s world-renowned job training programs. In fact, Trump has sung the praises of the vocational education and training (VET) system before, saying it could be a model for America. Earlier this year, Ivanka Trump visited a vocational training center in Berlin together with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and apparently left a full-blown fan.
The idea of putting in place German-style apprenticeship training programs in the United States is not new. The goal is to provide training for those eager to develop skills but for whom college might not be a good fit — an important task in a country where there remains an egregious mismatch between the skills required in job openings and those possessed by their applicants.
But it’s far from clear that a German model — one that has always functioned as part of a broader welfare state that prioritizes social harmony over individuals — will function well in the United States, a very different economy and society. At the same time, paradoxically, the push to bring apprenticeships to the United States comes just as vocational training has begun to lose appeal in Germany itself, as workers grow increasingly interested in higher education instead.
The apprenticeship model is deeply anchored in Germanic culture, its roots stretching back to the medieval guild system in Central Europe when master craftsmen tutored apprentices in professions regulated by guilds. Today, the heart of VET system, which also operates in Austria and Switzerland, is the parallel experience of classroom study in state-financed trade schools (Berufsschule) and hands-on training in private sector enterprises, with emphasis on the latter. Applicants apply for apprenticeships in about 350 certified professions including airplane mechanic, house painter, information systems technician, and beekeeper. The programs, all cost-free, take about three years. In the companies, the trainees are tutored under the supervision of a certified trainer and paid monthly salaries by the company in the range of $850 a month.
Berufsschule certification is mandatory to practice one of Germany’s skilled professions. “In contrast to in the U.S., there’s real respect in Germany for all of the skilled professions covered by the VET,” explains William Symonds, the director of the Global Pathways Institute at Arizona State University, who notes that even kindergarten teachers and retailers are recognized as skilled professionals in Germany. “They’re treated with reverence because their graduates conduct their professions with a high degree of professional excellence. It’s not nearly as elitist as the U.S. labor market, where many such jobs are looked down upon.”
The scale of the Germanic model is a testament to its value. More than half of Germany’s workers have VET certification; another 10 percent are master craftsmen or technicians — that is, Berufsschule graduates who, after a stint in the workforce, attend vocational colleges. Ninety percent of the country’s large businesses, as well as thousands of smaller and medium-sized enterprises, host the country’s 1.4 million apprentices every year. The private sector and the state schools work together so closely that the lion’s share of all dual-system graduates find a job in their profession immediately after certification and more than a third of them with the firm they trained in. Through the in-house training, German businesses turn apprentices into customized specialists at low net costs. And, to keep pace with changes in the economy such as digitalization or the renewable energies boom, the occupations’ flexible curricula are constantly revised. Since 2002, for example, 44 new occupations have been created and 187 updated.
American business consultant and author Harold Sirkin underscores that vocational education in the United States is often considered the place for difficult students and underachievers. Some students, he argues, “are bored by traditional studies, while others don’t have the aptitude for college. Some would rather work with their hands.” In the United States, he notes, these types can fall through the cracks, winding up unemployed and in poverty.
But the Germans, he maintains, “realize that everyone won’t benefit from college, but they can still be successful and contribute to society. Americans often see such students as victims. Germans see these students as potential assets who might one day shine if they’re matched with the right vocation.” The VET, Sirkin underlines, does the matching and provides the necessary training. America, he concludes, “for too long has attempted a cookie-cutter approach to secondary education: Stay in school, go to college, and we’ll all be happy. To our continued consternation, it doesn’t always work.”
In the United States, 70 percent of high school graduates enroll in college; in Germany, it’s only a third.
But apprenticeships, in Germany at least, were never intended to be standalone programs; rather, they’ve always been embedded within the broader German social welfare state.
The modern VET was designed and honed through close cooperation among state, industry, and the trade unions. This collaboration itself has been a trademark of the federal republic, then and now. Postwar West Germany prioritized social unity; the idea behind the VET was not just to supply industry with labor, but also to nurture a cohesive citizenry in which skilled workers earn well and consider themselves constructive parts of the economy and society. This harmony between state, worker, and industry, however, was gained at the expense of accepting the sort of intense economic regulation and coordination that is antithetical to small-government loving Americans.
And the Germans have been willing to pay for it; a not insignificant price of more than $9 billion a year from the state, and about the same from the private sector. The price of apprenticeships includes the cost of paying classroom instructors, on-the-job trainers, and the apprentices themselves. In contrast, in the United States, where classroom-based programs are the preferred method of job training, the federal government allots just $2.7 billion to such efforts, which Trump’s budget proposal aims to cut by 40 percent to $1.6 billion. The United States does also have apprenticeships, which under the Obama administration rose in number from 375,000 to half a million by 2016 (just a third of the number in Germany, which has a population about a quarter the size of the United States’.) But in the United States the novices tend to be substantially older than German apprentices and concentrated in fewer industries, according to the Global Pathways Institute. Trump’s budget proposal, released in late May, allocates $95 million for apprenticeships — about the same amount President Obama appropriated for such training in 2016. In the executive order, signed in mid-June, Trump raised the amount to $200 million.
And yet Germans, neither taxpayers nor businesses, gripe about the high cost: it’s considered well worth it in the long run.
“The idea that the U.S. might embrace the German approach has gone in and out of fashion,” explains Symonds, an expert on vocational training. “The general consensus is it would be impossible to import the German system, and that it might take decades to build broad support for an equivalent approach to education. The German dual system is widely supported by business, government, and many citizens. In the United States, this approach to education is still embraced by just a distinct minority.”
Another obstacle — and Symonds admits that it’s an issue for him, too, although he admires the VET — is that young Germans are put on career tracks at a very early age. The process of sorting begins as early as the fourth grade, when it’s decided that some of the less talented kids will not be put on track to attend gymnasium, one of the elite, pre-college high schools that lead to academic higher education. Some critics call Germany’s tracked system inherently discriminatory as it’s usually lower-income children and immigrants who score poorly and get sorted out early. Late bloomers don’t have it easy. Nor do the Germans buy into the idea that anyone could grow up to be chancellor; the emphasis is on achieving stability as part of a cohesive society rather than pushing individuals to reaching for the stars.
Nevertheless, Germany’s VET is considered highly successful in Germany and is enormously popular. Despite this, recently it’s found itself unable to fill open apprenticeships. German companies are short on highly skilled labor, most pronounced in technology-driven branches, including digitalization, information technnology, telecommunications, and building and electrical engineering. According to the Cologne Institute for Economic Research, there are 430,000 open positions in skilled professions, most of them in mathematics, computer science, the natural sciences, and technology. Experts warn that that figure could double in the future as Germany’s transition to a decarbonized economy demands ever more technicians and servicing staff.
The shortages aren’t a matter of sagging demographics, though Germany’s workforce is aging. Rather, ironically, as the United States seeks to find new paths for those who aren’t college-bound, the number of young Germans opting for higher education (at colleges, universities, polytechnics) has increased, as have the number and types of degrees available, such as the four-year bachelor’s degree, a relatively new option in Germany. The college degree is more prestigious and the potential paycheck ultimately higher; a degree can also open up options for scaling the career ladder to much higher posts in management as well as in research, which the skilled technical professions can’t promise. And women still shy away from technical careers despite Germany’s herculean efforts to change this.
It’s a sign that a system that has worked well in Germany for decades may need to adjust even more for a rapidly shifting economy — and that the same system is far from an easily importable, one-size-fits-all fix.
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