Remember the “sham-wow” guy, famous for the 30-second bits in the middle of late night TV? One of his many one-liners was, “you know the Germans always make good stuff.” Turns out, he may be right.
Germany, through a well-designed apprenticeship system, has, for decades, been preparing young people for its demanding economy—and the United States could learn from Germany’s example.
America’s education system is not doing enough prepare students for future employment. A recent Gallup poll reveals that a meager 11 percent of business leaders strongly agreed that recent graduates had the skills to perform well in the work place.Among high school graduates, The American Diploma Project found that, “Most employers say high school graduates lack basic skills. More than 60 percent of employers rate graduates’ skills in grammar, spelling, writing and basic math as only ‘fair’ or ‘poor.’”
In Germany, the system is very different. After finishing secondary school, two-thirds of young people become paid apprentices, spending 3 to 4 days at work and 1 to 2 days in state sponsored vocational schools. Training typically lasts three years and there are apprenticeship opportunities in all careers, although the majority is in the service sector.
Some businesses, fed up with the lousy education system, are taking matters into their own hands. German firms, such as BMW and Siemens, are turning to apprenticeships here in the U.S. For example, Tennessee’s new Volkswagen plant, recently in the news for saying “no” to union leaders, has created a 3-year apprenticeship, modeled on the German system. In an interview with The Wall Street Journal, the plant’s Human Resource Chief Hans-Herbert Jagla said, “We’ve learned it is better to build our own workforce instead of just relying on the market.”
Inspired by German businesses, South Carolina launched Apprenticeship Carolina in 2010 as a division of their statewide technical school network. They provide companies with a $1000 tax credit per apprentice per year. The state also has a small team to help firms set up and maintain their apprenticeship system. This small investment has produced large dividends: South Carolina has served almost 10,000 apprentices and increased the number of apprenticeship programs by 619 percent.
Apprenticeship growth has come in many sectors from traditional industries (such as construction and manufacturing) to healthcare and tourism. The state is preparing a skilled workforce while the apprentices earn money and incur little to no student loan debt. Other states should consider following suit with similar programs.
Thanks in large part to its apprenticeship program, Germany has Europe’s lowest youth unemployment rate (under 8 percent) and a highly skilled technical workforce. In contrast, the United States youth unemployment remains stubbornly high (15 percent). Germany’s apprenticeship system is not a perfect model for the United States, mostly because of certain cultural differences. But it should still be considered as a way to develop a skilled workforce without the high costs of a college degree.
Apprenticeships allow young people to work hard, make money, and earn important experience and accolades. As the costs of higher education rise, and jobs remain hard to obtain, apprenticeships are a worthwhile alternative for young people looking to gain skills and jump-start their career.