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INDIANAPOLIS — Two years. That’s how long it takes William Lamkin’s fast-growing electrical contracting company to teach new hires with four-year university degrees the tricks of the trade.

These college grads “have learned the book stuff, but they don’t have real-world experience,” said Lamkin, vice president of Industrial Electric. “They don’t know how to work with other people, or subcontractors — how to actually do business.”

Bringing them up to speed while paying them a salary is time-consuming and expensive, and even then there’s no guarantee that they’ll be good enough to keep. Which only complicates the original predicament: In spite of the still-soft job market, companies like Lamkin’s can’t find enough qualified workers.

Now some hiring managers, a few policymakers, and a handful of community colleges are accepting help to solve this problem from an unexpected source: the Germans.

Career and technical education
Students at Ivy Tech Community College. (Photo: Ivy Tech Community College)

Through an initiative being quietly promoted by the German embassy, U.S. colleges that consider themselves part of the greatest higher-education system in the world are importing the German model of career and technical education to keep up with a demand they can’t fill: for Americans with the right skills to work in mid-level fields.

“We said, ‘What is the best model?’” said Sue Smith, vice president for technology and applied sciences at Indiana’s Ivy Tech Community College, which has teamed up with Lamkin’s company to create a program for prospective employees based on what the Germans do. “And, quite honestly, the German model is the best model.”

It consists of a so-called dual system of education and training that combines a few days a week of classroom instruction at vocational schools with on-the-job apprenticeships that are designed to lead to full-time jobs for which graduates are ready straight out of school. The German students also receive a form of credential called a certification qualification.

This simple setup keeps German industry humming, and youth unemployment down to about 8 percent — less than half of what it is in the United States — according to the German embassy.

By comparison, routes to similar careers in the United States are convoluted and confusing, even as the need for workers to fill them escalates, a study by the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development found.

“Quite honestly, the German model is the best model.” Sue Smith, Ivy Tech Community College

The kinds of education required for these mid-level jobs — many of them in manufacturing industries that are expanding quickly in states including Indiana — are also getting more sophisticated. By 2018, two-thirds of all jobs in the United States will require more than high school degrees, the Georgetown Center for Education and the Workforce estimates.

And while colleges and universities are scrambling to keep up, business doesn’t think they have.

Ninety-six percent of chief academic officers from colleges and universities say their institutions are preparing college graduates for work, but only 11 percent of business leaders say they’re getting what they need, the Gallup polling organization found in a survey for the Lumina Foundation. (Lumina is among the funders of The Hechinger Report, which produced this story.)

About 30 companies and 30 community and private colleges are turning to the Germans, embassy spokesman Markus Knauf said. Most of the programs are still in the planning stages, though a few are under way. In addition to Indiana, they’re in California, Georgia, Kentucky, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, Ohio, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Virginia, and the District of Columbia. “Why not? Different methods of education can be very effective,” said Debra Kerrigan, dean of workforce training and continuing education at Dunwoody College of Technology in Minneapolis, which has teamed up with a local plant of the Swiss equipment manufacturing company Bühler to deliver the classroom portion of the German-style apprenticeship-and-classroom combination.

Career and technical education
Students at Ivy Tech Community College. (Photo: Ivy Tech Community College)

Many of the companies that are participating in these pilot programs are German owned, mainly because they’re already familiar with the system. About 3,400 German companies operate in the United States, the embassy says, though Ivy Tech is also launching collaborations with Cummins Engines and Chrysler.

“German companies get it right away,” Smith said. “You don’t have to explain it to them like you have to with the American companies.”

And there are a number of them in Indiana, whose history of German immigration continues to connect it with German culture, officials there say.

“There’s a lot of similarity between the way Hoosiers do things and the way Germans do,” said Sven Schumacher, honorary German consul to Indianapolis, who wears a lapel pin with the German and American flags and speaks of holding meetings about the education initiative at German companies based in Indiana over sausage and sauerkraut. “I think that’s helpful in understanding this, and I think it’s why German companies come to this state.”

Starting in the fall, Ivy Tech students will spend three days a week in class and two at companies like Lamkin’s, where they will be paid for their apprenticeships. The college plans similar programs in advanced automation and robotics at the request of employers that run large assembly plants. Participants are expected to include traditional-age students and also people who want to change jobs or find new careers.

The Obama administration also likes the idea. It has announced a consortium of community colleges and industry to create an even broader system under which students would get academic credit for apprenticeships that Vice President Joe Biden said offer “a pathway to the middle class” and “a pipeline of skilled workers for employers.” Still, to catch up with Germany on a per-capita basis, the United States would have to add 2.5 million apprenticeships. About 358,000 exist today, according to the Center for American Progress, many of them organized not by companies but by unions.

Only about 10 percent of American 18- to 22-year-olds get on-the-job training, the OECD reports.

One reason is that it’s expensive. Ivy Tech has persuaded some of its corporate partners to reimburse the tuition of students who successfully complete their apprenticeships and stick around to work, for instance.

In Germany, employers pay 75 percent of the $19,850 annual cost of each trainee, and the government covers the rest.

“I don’t think there are a going to be a lot of companies that are going to be able to invest this kind of money,” Kerrigan said.

For students, on the other hand, it could be a good deal. Getting an academic degree before going into a mid-level profession adds an average of up to 18 percent to average salaries for men and 23 percent for women, the OECD estimates.

Lamkin thinks it’s worth the investment — and that the long-established German system could help solve his staffing problem.

“They’ve been doing this for years,” he said. “That’s been the German philosophy for a long time: to train you for a job.”

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  1. If you look at the UK and Australia, you will find that the majority of trade apprentices complete theory at TAFE (college) & learn the practical in their place of work. with todays high level of technology used in all blue collar trades (auto technicians, electricians, etc.) the apprentice of today possible requires an education level equal to that of a college grade.

  2. “In Germany, employers pay 75 percent of the $19,850 annual cost of each trainee, and the government covers the rest.

    “I don’t think there are a going to be a lot of companies that are going to be able to invest this kind of money,” Kerrigan said.”

    So, just to clarify, U.S. businesses are unhappy spending the time, 2 years, and salary + benefits, to train a 4-year college grad how to do a job, AND they also don’t want to spend approximately $15,000, partner with Tech schools, on a dual-system that will provide them with a pipeline of skilled, trained employees. I’d say that U.S. companies are cheap whiners.

  3. Dr. Burrell and Ms. Sue Smith,

    what you are reporting in your article is nothing new. The German education system may have a few things to learn; but they are way ahead of the the United States when it comes to preparing its young adults to become a member of the workforce. Try starting at 15+ years old. When I left the US. military and decided to stay in German, yes , a German business hired me and sent me off to learn how to speak and write German and train me for the job he hired me for.
    That was back in 1983. The German system work, the figures may be off but I hope you get the picture – get paid for working and going to school, so that when your three year apprenticeship has ended , you have a skillset that the business community is in need of.

    my first year I was paid monthly DM 800.00 with all benefits included – Medical, unemployment, social security, paid vacation. a 13 month paycheck (half paid out in July and the other in December termed vacation pay and christmas bonus). The second and third year my pay increased by DM200.00. After that I was offered a fulltime position and my pay was adjusted accordingly.

    The US Government really need to have a closer look at how the Germans prepare its young for tomorrow and also how it has implemented Universal healthcare.

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