As US scrambles to fill highly skilled jobs, Germany’s vocational education system offers ideas

Lukas Graf travelled coast-to-coast in the US discussing apprenticeships and higher education.

Since the 1990s, various administrations – both Republican and Democratic – have launched programmes to expand the pool of highly skilled labour in the US. President Donald Trump's Executive Order in 2017 to expand and reform apprenticeships followed suit - amid ever greater demand for workers with advanced training. At 3.7% unemployment in October 2018, the US job market was so tight that the Federal Reserve warned the gap in highly skilled labour in some industries could restrain growth.

This crisis has been long in the making. In contrast to Germany, the US has no uniform, nationally mandated system of training for vocations. At the same time, the cultural bias toward 'college for all' in the last half century has deterred young people from pursuing highly skilled jobs acquired through occupational training - and it has saddled many of them with debt. Now the US is looking at ways to make such jobs more attractive.

Many hope that Germany’s much-revered apprenticeship system, long held up as a model for other countries, could provide some answers. The Obama administration, too, created a fund for apprenticeships in 2015. “This may be one of the few bipartisan issues left at the moment,” not to mention a refreshing sign of transatlantic cooperation, says Lukas Graf, Assistant Professor of Educational Governance at the Hertie School, after a trip to the US last summer to present his research on skill formation and labour markets in the US and Germany.

But he term “apprenticeship” has become something of a catch-all phrase for a work-based system of training highly skilled workers. In fact, next to traditional apprenticeships, Germany has another system combining on-the-job training and higher education that may be a better fit for the US, Graf says. So-called dual-study programmes, a hybrid of paid work in firms and post-secondary education, are on the rise in Germany where they are breaking down traditional boundaries between higher education and vocational training.

Germany's 'learn and earn' dual-study concept may be more compatible with the US, where there is an established community college-based system of vocational education, such as that offered by Central Piedmont Community College, a leader in occupational training, which Graf visited in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Germany’s apprenticeships are traditionally work-based programmes beginning at the secondary-school (high school) level. German high-school pupils traditionally choose around age 16 whether to pursue a vocational track or continue on a university-bound track - as opposed to the US, where vocational education often begins after graduation from high school. In Germany, nationally recognised qualifications are designed jointly by stakeholders: business associations, chambers of commerce and unions in a particular industry, and are mandated by federal law. Around half of all young people born in the same year currently choose to enter an apprenticeship in one of the 330 certified vocations. At the end of 2016, there were 1.32 million apprentices in Germany, with around 20 percent of all companies in Germany participating in the training system.

In US, stakeholders debate the best path

While the Obama efforts had already increased funding for vocational education in the US, the Trump administration wants apprenticeships that are structured and supported at the industry level. Somewhat different from previous proposals, this would give more authority to employers.

“This strategy has sparked a lot of debate,” Graf says. “And those involved are seeking knowledge from countries like Germany with a long experience in this area.”

Rather than talking to policy-makers “inside the beltway” in Washington, Graf was invited by the American Council on Germany, which is the American sister organisation of the Atlantik Brücke, and the German-American Chamber of Commerce, to spend time with experts working at ground level across the US.  At meetings with stakeholders, practitioners, people in education and training, and deans of community colleges in San Francisco, Atlanta, and Charlotte, North Carolina, Graf presented the German model and discussed its compatibilities – and incompatibilities – with that of the US.

“These were people from different sectors who don’t always have the opportunity to exchange their experiences: representatives from high schools, community colleges, liberal arts colleges, employers and local politicians,” Graf said. “Everywhere I heard the same thing – ‘it’s great we are all finally talking to each other’.”

The reasons for the rise of dual-study programmes in Germany, as opposed to traditional apprenticeships, are common to both countries: besides skills that meet stringent occupational standards, future workers will likely need the kinds of innovative capacity that that students get from a university education, Graf told his audiences in the US. In turn, this speaks in favour of programmes that combine practical skills from the workplace and the thinking and theory of the seminar room.

In the US, “some work-based higher education programmes resemble the German dual-study programmes, including higher-end apprenticeship programmes offered by American community colleges as well as a range of co-op programmes,” Graf said in a 2017 paper published in the American Political Science Association Journal, PS, together with Justin J.W. Powell of the University of Luxembourg. In addition, the lack of comprehensive national occupational standards, weak cooperation between business associations and unions and decentralized relationships between firms across industry may make dual-study more attractive than traditional apprenticeships in the US.

What can they learn from each other?

Although the German model of apprenticeships has a long established history, this, too is undergoing changes to adapt to new work demands and changes in education – and policymakers in Germany even look to the US for inspiration. While in the US, employers want more practical skills among academic graduates, in Germany there is a demand for more academic skills for those in trained occupations, Graf points out.

“Actually, we have a lot to learn from each other,” he says. “The US can inspire Germany to create more flexible links between academic education and vocational training as well as to promote co-op programs in which students rotate between employers for training.”

Some argue that old-school German apprenticeship training is too focused on how industry worked in the past, and not connected enough to the new world of technology and innovation. “The German economy needs more creative capacities in emerging sectors – but how do you link the old skilled world to the new world that requires innovation?” Graf asks.

The dual-study system is not without pitfalls, however. Some in Germany argue it will lead to an academisation of areas whose traditional strength is in hands-on skilled workers. And it may also give too much power to employers – a criticism of the Trump apprenticeships as well.

“Apprenticeships in Germany presuppose collective governance, so in transferring this model to higher education, stakeholders need to be organised,” Graf says. In the dual-study system, the key partners tend to be employers and educators, rather than the traditional social partners of business associations and employee representatives.

This throws up a host of issues. “So, for example, when unions are involved, they usually aim to standardise wages, and as a result it is more difficult for companies to poach employees after investment in training,” Graf points out. “Can apprenticeships be successful in a liberal economic model, like the US and not just in places where a system of collective bargaining between employers and labour has a long tradition, like Germany?”

On the other hand, such cooperation creates synergies between employers and educators to work together to reduce the skills mismatch in a technologically changing economy – both in Germany and the US. But “if private actors in for-profit companies, with specific skill demands, are engaged in education as policy makers, we need to make sure that students get a broad skill-set that benefits society at large in the future.” Graf says.

The question policymakers in both countries need to consider is: “Whose interests prevail in these set-ups – is it the employers or the higher education institutions? That is, are the higher education organisations in a position to put constraints on employers, for example to enhance collective action or provide collective goods like transferable skills?”

More about Lukas Graf

  • Lukas Graf , Assistant Professor of Educational Governance