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US universities are known for their academic excellence, but graduates often lack the practical experience. "Skills Initiative" is a German initiative that is spreading vocational training in the US.
US President Barack Obama made strengthening home-based industrial production a key pillar of economic policy in his 2012 State of the Union address. However, turning US products into globally recognized industrial brands that stand for quality and cutting edge technology faces a skills problem.
"While our university and graduate training programs are world class, we have not always done as well in serving students who are not going into four-year degree programs – students who are more interested in technical and apprenticeship training," US Deputy Secretary of Commerce Rebecca Blank said at a recent symposium organized by the German embassy in Washington D.C.
As the US industry, notably Detroit-based carmakers, appears to be recovering from decades of downturn, there is a growing need for skilled industrial workers. The vocational training model in Germany may serve as an example of how this could be achieved in the United States, Blank said.
"There are clear benefits. Germany has proven that this approach is a cost-effective way to strengthen its manufacturing base, to booster its competitiveness and it helps the economy gain traction while also providing a clear path to good jobs for high school graduates," she said.
US-German collaboration well underway
Since May 2012, "Skills Initiative" – a program set up by the German embassy in Washington D.C. – has fostered collaboration for vocational training among German and American companies, and education authorities and training centers from the two countries.
North Carolina's Central Piedmont Community College, which has 70,000 enrolled students, has used the German job training model. Although the vocational training had been cut from four years to two to accommodate the wishes of American companies, the college's president, Tony Zeiss, said it wasn't easy to convince the firms of a different training model.
However, a breakthrough, , which included an exchange for teachers and apprentices, was set up in collaboration with the Chamber of Commerce and Industry in Karlsruhe, Germany.
"[We]were so thrilled because they allowed us to use their curriculum to teach German certifications to Americans who desire to work in German companies. It’s working splendidly," Zeiss said.
Being able to use the German curriculum allowed the college to reach German training standards for our apprentices, Zeiss said, noting that the first group of apprentices would graduate from the program in May.
German companies often complain about the lack of properly qualified staff in the US. They say that would already inhibit more direct investment. Germany is the third largest investor in the US, with annual investments worth about $200 billion (147 billion euros).
Improving corporate identity
At the symposium, Eric Spiegel, the CEO of Siemens' US operations, called for greater public-private partnership in vocational training. He pointed out that a training course would cost $150,000 for a single apprentice, which today was primarily covered by the business itself.
The vocation training programs need to include more companies, so that more people can be trained, Spiegel said, noting that companies that won't need to worry if a worker changes employers if there enough skilled people.
However, this would require a change in US corporate culture, Rebecca Blank said.
"I think it’s a culture change in terms of workers. Feeling that a company has invested in them and they are therefore sticking around long enough to make that investment worthwhile to the company," she added.
Fostering professional pride
Unfortunately, American workers are not used to taking pride in their professional qualifications, said Robert Lerman, an economics professor at the American University. What counts in the United States are the university courses and graduation diplomas, he said
"Six billion dollars were spent to reduce interest rates for college loans. Six billion dollars. The entire budget for the office of apprenticeship is 25 million dollars," he explained, noting that some US states only have one employee who is responsible for apprenticeship programs.
Giving industrial jobs a new image is essentially important, said Mike Beamish from German carmaker Volkswagen (VW). Factory work is no longer dirty, mind-numbing and unsafe as it used to be, he noted.
Pointing to VW's new plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee, Beamish said that production is largely automated and based on robot technology, which requires specialized skills but offers good career opportunities.
The VW executive highlighted the Chattanooga plant's training program in which 65 apprentices were currently undergoing vocational training. The first twelve of them will complete their training in August and will all obtain a job at the plant, Beamish said.