Take a Tour

Several years ago, my brother and I visited Daimler’s largest production facility in the small town of Sindelfingen, Germany. Some of the most sophisticated cars in the world are built there. Like other modern manufacturing facilities, the Mercedes-Benz plant is more of a campus than a factory. Some 26,000 employees work in a network of buildings with dedicated services including several fire brigades, movie theaters, full-time medical staff, and two nearby technical schools. All of this is devoted to producing nearly one car every minute via robotically automated assembly (though much of the Maybach limousine is still hand-crafted).

Sindelfingen is part of a larger ecosystem in the state of Baden-Württemberg. A cooperative mix of government, technical schools, business chambers, unions, and small and medium-sized enterprises (Mittelstand) manage the complex task of producing the engineering talent demanded by industry. This is by no means a seamless system, but it is effective; southwest Germany boasts a solid 4 percent unemployment rate and exported over $175 billion in goods in 2013, more than the total exports of Austria, Norway, or Turkey. These kinds of statistics have made the “German model” very attractive for U.S. policymakers.

There have been several recent efforts to jumpstart similar ecosystems in the United States, especially in the old industrial regions of the upper Midwest. In 2013, funds from four federal agencies were used to launch a pilot institute on advanced manufacturing in Youngstown, Ohio. The National Additive Manufacturing Institute (NAMII) aims to spearhead develop of emerging technologies such as 3D printing in a part of the country that has been one of the worst hit by the flight of old industries. My brother’s small company in Ohio, Kent Displays, was a founding member and manufactures cutting edge LCD displays for export to Asia and Europe, including the Boogie Board writing tablet. It remains to be seen, however, whether these small initiatives can be sustainably brought to scale nationwide.

Making Things is “Cool” (But Not to Everyone)

Education is fundamental to the success of these systems in Central Europe. My first experience living abroad was as an English teacher at two schools in southern Austria. The first school tracked students as early as 14 years of age into a curriculum in electronic engineering and biomedical technology and the second school emphasized sports. While the former emphasized some of the best achievements of a dual system of education, the latter revealed some of the worst.

At a technical school, one might think young students would be overwhelmed with such demanding subjects as computer chip design and robotics—nothing could be further from the truth. One of my 16 year old students gutted his own guitar amplifier for a class project, replacing the back panel with a clear plastic screen that offered a full view of the inner workings and purple LED lights he installed that glowed while the amp hummed. In near fluent English, he demonstrated how inspired he was by the American TV show “Pimp My Ride,” set in a custom car design shop in California. In the United States, similar shows like “Robot Wars” may have inspired many to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM), but opportunities for young American students to engage with the inner workings of technology at school are still rare.

A few years later on my first day of work at Daimler AG headquarters in Stuttgart, I ran into an American teenager who had signed up for an exchange program with the company’s Classic Service Center in Fellbach in the state of Baden-Württemberg. He looked a bit out of place and knew little about Germany, but was eager for the “cool” opportunity of spending a few months learning about the repair and restoration of Mercedes models from throughout Daimler-Benz’s 150 year history. I thought it was cool too, but wondered how many 16 year old Americans even knew they could have such an experience—and why not in Michigan with Ford or GM?

These experiences were in stark contrast with the environment at my other school in Austria. It was perceived as the lowest of the secondary schools and acknowledged by even some of the teachers as the “last resort” for students who were neither motivated by technical studies nor ready for the academic rigor of upper secondary school (i.e., Gymnasium). It was true that many of the students were not yet motivated in a particular direction, but early selection seemed to force them into an environment without the advantages of the other schools in the Austrian system. A dual system can be empowering, but also can limit the potential of “late bloomers” and even entrench class differences.  What made the experience more jarring was that my technical school was a mere five minute bike ride away.

Educating Citizens, Not Just Workers

U.S. community colleges, training academies, and other cooperative education institutions have suffered similar disadvantages. They have been seen for too long seen as a lesser form of schooling. Our universities continue to attract the world’s brightest, but even our best community colleges struggle to compete. The negative impression of technical and vocational studies is a major factor and so are outdated views on “dirty, uncool, or limiting” careers in construction, health services, or advanced manufacturing—three of the fastest-growing industries in the United States.

Education, of course, is not just about shaping the future workforce. It is also about shaping future citizens. We need to develop a highly-skilled workforce capable of producing things the world wants, but also need to foster a productive and engaged citizenry. The writing and critical thinking skills found in liberal arts colleges are just as valuable to the country as the hard skills learned through work-based programs. Reform should not be about picking one over the other, but offering new generations the opportunity to choose the best of both.