Dual System Dilemmas

Parke Nicholson

Parke Nicholson was previously the Senior Research Associate at AICGS. He was selected to participate in the Munich Young Leaders 2016 program at the 52nd Munich Security Conference. Previously, he worked at the Center for the National Interest and the Council on Foreign Relations. In 2008, he served on the foreign policy staff at Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign headquarters. He has also worked abroad in Austria and Germany: in 2005 through the Fulbright Program in Klagenfurt and in 2010-2011 as a Robert Bosch Foundation Fellow working in the German Foreign Office for the Coordinator of Transatlantic Cooperation and for Daimler AG’s Political Intelligence unit in Stuttgart.

Parke has recently published in Foreign Affairs, The National Interest, The Baltimore Sun, and the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. He received his MA in International Relations from The Elliott School of International Affairs at The George Washington University and a BA in History and Violin Performance at The College of Wooster in Ohio.

Germany was derided not too long ago as the “sick man of Europe” after years of economic malaise. It is now lauded as the world’s Exportweltmeister; its current-account surplus even surpassed China’s in the past year. Undergirding the German economy is a highly structured, but remarkably efficient, system of work-based education that has survived these periods of boom and bust.

In contrast to our observations in Hungary, the hallmark of German apprenticeship is its high status and tenacious commitment to quality. The various social partners that are involved in the system (i.e., employers, technical schools, business chambers, and trade unions) cooperate extensively to maintain high national standards and attract the best students and teachers. This is different from countries that seek to expand apprenticeship without institutional support or by focusing on lower tier schools simply as a means to provide school-leavers with some basic technical proficiency.

AICGS visited several of these social partners in Berlin (ZDH, DGB), Hannover (IHK, a multimedia school), and Hildesheim (Alcoa, Bosch). We spoke with managers at leading companies as well as teachers and students. There was an impressive commitment to providing the practical skills needed for careers in advanced manufacturing and IT, two growth areas for the United States.

However, creating two full-fledged career pathways (university and dual training) is a major investment and is not without its challenges: there is a growing gap between the supply of apprenticeships and dwindling demand in Germany caused by shifting attitudes in favor of college and demographic decline; highly regulated certification can pose challenges for hiring qualified teachers in emerging fields; and over a quarter million German students are still caught in a transition system between the two main paths to a career.

It is hard, though, not to admire Germany’s achievements in work-based education. High costs for companies tend to be recovered after completion of a typical three-year apprenticeship. High achieving students are drawn to a route that promises both employment and an alternate route to university. Some labor mobility is sacrificed, but largely to the benefit of employers who are getting the skills they need.

Given it’s scale and complexity, it is difficult to isolate the elements of the German system (or similar systems like in Switzerland or Austria) that could be applicable in the United States. But that is one of the goals of this AICGS project. Stay tuned as we continue to explore best practice in apprenticeship next week during our trip to the United Kingdom.

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies.