Transatlantic Dialogue: How Are State and Local Leaders Shaping the Future Workforce?

What kind of workforce does our country need and what career pathways are available to students in Germany and the United States? These questions, among others, were addressed at the first AICGS Transatlantic Dialogue of the States, Cities, and Communities in Washington, DC on May 23. The theme for this year’s dialogue was “How Are State and Local Leaders Shaping the Future Workforce?” and was undertaken with the generous support of the Transatlantic Program of the Federal Republic of Germany with funds from the European Recovery Program (ERP)  of the German Federal Ministry of Economics and Technology (BMWi). Our goal was to bring leaders from Germany and the United States together to discuss the shared challenge of providing new generations the skills they need to join the workforce.

AICGS hosted seven experts from various regions in Germany and eight experts from as many U.S. states. On May 23, experts participated in a closed session workshop and Governor John Engler of the Business Roundtable spoke about the critical need to reassess work-based education.

The AICGS Transatlantic Dialogue addressed a range of topics, including the characteristics of the dual system of education in Germany, the challenges faced both by Germany and the United States, and best practices from both countries. Below is a summary of the dialogue discussion.

The Dual Education System

Germany actually has three systems of education, one of which is oriented toward university and two which generally lead to faster entry into the workforce. Students are typically tracked at a young age into these different paths. Nearly two-thirds of all German students go through some form of “dual study” program that blends on-the-job experience with classroom instruction. Students come out of these programs not only with technical knowledge, but substantial work experience and qualifications that they can build upon throughout their career.

There are many actors involved in these dual study programs. Those who participate make sure that skills training contributes to the needs of businesses and society, and that it prepares workers adequately for flexible and rewarding careers. Technical schools, employers, unions, and the federal and local government work together on this shared goal. In Germany, industry chambers such as the Lübeck Handwerkskammer and Munich IHK (both represented at the Transatlantic Dialogue) represent a range of companies in a particular region and help identify, train, and employ students at these companies. On average, companies cover 75 percent of the costs of these programs and government makes up for the rest. Balancing the various interests among these actors is a constant challenge, but all must be involved to produce successful outcomes for students.

In order to allow for flexibility for the worker and to avoid dead-end careers, credentials in a dual education system must be stackable. As workers move up the career ladder, the sequence of courses that can be accumulated over time should be complementary and structured in a way that allows the worker a measurable sense of progress. This requires the creation of a sector qualifications framework like the German Qualifications Framework (DQR), which allows employers to reliably assess the quality of professional qualifications to best utilize the skills and abilities of German workers. The more recent European Qualifications Framework (EQF) is an attempt to adapt this system to a multi-national level. These frameworks serve as a tool to transfer competencies across different employers and allow skill sets to be measurable and stackable within the sector and to encourage lifelong learning.

Even with the dual education system securely in place, students must be alerted at an early age about the different options available to them. Different countries offer different programs to enable this through their education systems. In the United States, students typically have more freedom of choice and are loosely guided by parents and high school career counselors. In contrast, career paths for many German students are determined as early as 14 years of age after consultations between parents, teachers, and (ideally) the students. Internships and job-shadowing for U.S. high school students is important for them to see what jobs are available, but even these opportunities do not typically involve one-on-one mentoring with professionals or rigorous, work-based training.  Companies in Germany also regularly promote themselves to young students in order to peak their interest early in a wide range of career paths from construction to computer programming and advanced manufacturing.

Dual education systems require a systematic approach to planning that incorporates feedback from companies and schools and re-integrates it back into the vocational training programs. The constant modernizing of training curricula gives both employers and educators the opportunity to reassess needs and adjust to the demands of the market. It also makes clear what responsibility different actors have, especially what role the government is willing to take. Trade unions such as the German Confederation of Trade Unions (DGB) offer feedback and, through codetermination, are involved in the decision-making process when companies decide to create new training opportunities.

It is important to note that a dual education system takes a long time to develop and cannot simply be transferred from one country to another. Germany has had its system in place for decades, is itself built upon the medieval craft and trade guilds, and union participation is far beyond what may be possible in the United States. Nonetheless, there are several elements that could be adapted in a way that supports a new U.S. model for career and technical education.

Principal Challenges

There are a number of great home-grown initiatives in the United States (see below), but no comprehensive system that connects the dots as in Germany. The U.S. government and, particularly, the Department of Labor have sought to amplify the efforts of successful workforce training initiatives throughout the country, including the recent announcement of a $2 billion fund for apprenticeship training. However, as Governor John Engler of the Business Roundtable made clear to the dialogue participants, widespread mistrust of U.S. government involvement in state and local initiatives will continue to be an obstacle to scaling up these initiatives. Demand-driven initiatives supported by industry like the Advanced Manufacturing Partnership 2.0 may be a more effective means to achieving a goal shared by industry and the administration—renewing American manufacturing and revitalizing the U.S. workforce.

There are other challenges in the United States, especially the negative association many Americans still have about career paths other than those based on a four-year university degree. However, this should be seen less as a barrier to be overcome than as an opportunity for greater exchange between actors at various levels, including high school guidance counselors, teachers, parents, and employers in order to address stereotypes about career and technical education. One suggestion would be to avoid using stigmatized terms like “vocational studies” or even “apprenticeship” and replace them with something more unique. Public outreach should be focused on explaining what “apprenticeships” really are, how many jobs are available for new apprentices, how much money graduates earn on average, and demonstrate to parents and students the wide variety of career options available to them.

U.S. companies need to shift their perception as well. Investing in vocational training is not charity and should not be viewed as such. It is rather a way for companies to tap into human capital by investing in their workforce and developing more robust planning to full develop their human resource pipeline. If companies are too small to kick off their own programs, they should work with other companies and seek out the support of community colleges and state labor departments to assist in identifying, financing, and, ultimately, educating the future workforce. More research is needed that clearly demonstrates the return on investment for companies that invest heavily in their workforce.

Best Practices in the United States

The Transatlantic Dialogue offered a unique opportunity to discuss some of the most innovative workforce training programs in the United States. Most of these programs are less than five years old and are generally small scale, but are actively developing networks of employers, educators, and government committed to sustaining public and private investment in training future generations with the skills needed by industry. Some have borrowed elements from the German model, but all are locally run and supported by U.S. companies, schools, and local government. Below is an outline of some of the programs that were highlighted at the event:

  • Apprenticeship Carolina: South Carolina’s very successful program is an employer-sponsored flexible training program that cultivates highly skilled workers to meet the workforce demands of the global economy. The program begins recruitment at the local K-12 level and continues into community college; this relationship is pivotal in the successful recruitment of students. The state-funded initiative is aimed at matching these students with the needs of small and medium-sized enterprises and multinationals like General Electric, Alcoa, Siemens, or Bosch. Apprenticeship Carolina hosts workforce summits with roundtable discussions with industry leaders about their workforce needs. Thus, it is an example of a demand-driven registered apprenticeship program that benefits both students and employers.

This progress is not done solely on part of the Apprenticeship Carolina program. The South Carolina Education and Economic Development Act passed in 2005 encourages community, technical college, and industry leaders to come together to help students explore career paths within sixteen nationally recognized career clusters. Additionally, a $1,000 tax credit is provided for each registered apprentice employed for at least seven months at a company. This state-supported effort has led to an eight-fold increase in the number of employers offering apprenticeships over the past six years.

  • Apprenticeship 2000 in North Carolina: One of the oldest apprenticeship initiatives in the United States was started in North Carolina by a group of medium-sized enterprises, including several from Europe such as Max Daetwyler Corporation and Blum, Inc.  Similar to North Carolina, this industry-led initiative offers a four-year technical training partnership with Central Piedmont Community Colleges that is designed to train workers for careers in manufacturing. Although the program has been active for eighteen years, leaders of the initiative admit that there has been mixed support from schools and greater coordination is required to fully maximize the program’s potential.
  • P-Tech in New York: This nationally recognized secondary school initiative is another example of an effective collaboration between business, education, and government. The institutions involved since 2011 include the City University of New York’s Early College Initiative, the NYC Department of Education, and IBM. The program is enrolled at capacity with around 4,000 students starting in 9th grade and completing the program after six years. This amounts to four years of high school and two years toward an associate’s degree. See here for a more complete description of the initiative in an AICGS publication by Stan Litow, IBM Vice President of Corporate Citizenship & Corporate Affairs and President of IBM’s Foundation.
  • Youth Apprenticeship in Wisconsin and Illinois: U.S. apprentices are typically in their mid to late-20s, but many of these programs are not confined to a post-secondary education curriculum. Indeed, Wisconsin’s Youth Apprenticeship program is part of a statewide school-to-work initiative designed for high school students to get hands-on learning at a worksite along with classroom instruction. Similarly, the Illinois Pathways Initiative, which functions in cooperation with the German American Chamber of Commerce (GACC), is an innovative new effort inspired by the dual-system to create learning exchanges and bringing together business and education in order to create a high quality curriculum. By connecting youth education with growing sectors of the Illinois state economy, this program helps ease the transition of the student into the workforce while also providing skilled labor.
  • Michigan Imports the German Dual Model: In 2012, Governor Rick Snyder from Michigan visited Germany and was inspired by the dual-system. Working together with the German-American Chamber of Commerce of the Midwest, his goal has been to implement a school-to-work program in mechatronics and other fields that fulfills the needs of Michigan companies. Students typically receive $200 per week from the company of employment during training and are guaranteed a job upon completion. If they leave within two years of finishing the program, they are required to repay the company.
  • Volkswagen Academy in Tennessee:  Volkswagen has adapted the German model to support its operations in Chattanooga by building a training center in 2010 in cooperation with Chattanooga State Community College. Its three-year apprenticeship program in mechatronics consists of 70 percent hands-on training in the factory and 30 percent theoretical studies at the academy. At the conclusion of the program, students receive an associate’s degree and a vocational training certificate that is also recognized in Germany. There are currently 43 students of which more than 20 will be hired in the coming year. Soon, 70 students will be enrolled in the program.
  • The “Massachusetts Model”: A dual education system in Worchester High School is based on providing training every other week in practical vocational skills. The combination of traditional learning and vocational methods allows students to enter the workforce immediately with the skills they learned or to pursue an advanced degree. The program was one of the success stories highlighted at a 2013 conference by the Pathways to Prosperity Project formerly based at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. President Obama gave the 2014 commencement address at the school.


“Preparing Young Americans for the 21st Century” by Bill Symonds

“The German Dual System” by Volker Rein


Photos from the Event:

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May 23, 2014