At a time of 8.2 percent unemployment and millions out of work in the U.S., how could an estimated 600,000 highly placed technical jobs remain unfilled for lack of qualified applicants? The answer may lie in the changing structure and expectations of the American educational system.
Simply put: Are we properly training our young people to participate in todays economy?
Different countries have different methods of training people for technical jobs. Here in the United States, the model is one of all students pursuing a basically similar curriculum from kindergarten through 12th grade.
At that point, graduates join the full-time workforce or go on to some sort of postsecondary institution. The most common ones are colleges and universities for people going into white-collar careers and vocational-technical schools for those who will do skilled work with their hands.
In Germany, students face a fork in the road at about age 14. Many continue on an academic track that prepares them for entry into a university. Others take a vocational branch that will combine classroom study with workplace apprenticeship training. This track applies not only to those headed into manufacturing and skilled trades, but also service-sector and retail jobs. Nearly 400 separate occupational titles have apprentice programs tailored for them.
Each system has advantages and disadvantages. Each reflects the history and culture of the nation using it.
Germany is an orderly nation that values continuity. Its apprenticeship system links directly back to the guild system of the middle ages. This system continued forward through the nations unification and dramatic industrialization in the 1800s and, in remarkably similar formats, through 45 years of separation into free-market West and communist East.
Moreover, in addition to world-scale industrial conglomerates like Krupp, Siemens and Volkswagen, the German economy and its status as a world exporter have always depended on myriad medium-size firms, often family-owned and managed for generations, that produce specialized machinery of all types.
The apprenticeship system is inextricably linked with these mittelstand firms, producing highly skilled technicians with great loyalty to specific companies and with expertise that allows as many innovations to come up from the shop floor as from the offices of engineers with university degrees.
But the German system inherently involves making near-irrevocable decisions about a persons life career at an early age, when young peoples preferences and true abilities are imperfectly formed or measurable.
This is not unique. Nearly all European education systems long incorporated nodal points at which an ever-decreasing elite continued through to training for upper-class careers while less smart, or less favored, students were shunted aside toward unskilled or skilled manual labor. In most cases, these nodes centered around high-pressure written exams.
Americans correctly saw this European approach as perpetuating a class system in which the children of upper-class and middle-class parents moved briskly along paths that would maintain their privileged status while the children of manual workers were herded through chutes to replace their parents in a coal mine shaft or on a mill floor.
Better, Americans argued, to afford the same opportunities to all, so that anyone who completed high school could have an equal shot at colleges, universities and an American dream career track. Those who chose not to go to college could go directly to work with a good background in reading, writing, math and science that would stand them well in many workplaces or prepare them for vocational education as needed.
Yes, apprenticeship programs like those in Germany turned out battalions of superb craftsmen. But here in the U.S., we also had millions of workers who became skilled machinists, welders, die makers and so forth. Moreover, many of them, including Henry Ford, Walter P. Chrysler and Samuel Vauclain (of Baldwin Locomotive fame) eventually went from laboring at a vise with a file in hand to running the largest corporations in the world.
For decades, the American critique was true. Social mobility was lower in Europe that in our own country, and European schooling, including apprenticeship programs, contributed to that.
However, now (and most Americans ignore this fact), social mobility in the United States is markedly lower than it was in the past and lower than in nearly any EU nation. And now, many argue, the trappings of U.S. egalitarian schooling serve to perpetuate social class rigidities. It has never been so true that if your parents went to college, you are highly likely to, and if they did not, you probably wont.
We in the U.S. blame low-wage East Asian exporters like China for the demise of U.S. manufacturing employment. Many also fault U.S. labor unions. But Germany, whose manufacturing workers average higher earnings than their U.S. counterparts with equivalent technical skills, continues as the worlds second largest exporter. With only 82 million people, it exports only slightly less than China, which has 1.334 billion people.
Yes, there are many other factors, including Germanys favorable position within the EU and the euro currency system.
The fact is, however, that an educational system once vaunted as providing opportunity for lower-class people now not only traps them in their status, but channels many into lives of economic marginality at best, and of crime at worst. We should be able to do better.
Economist Edward Lotterman teaches and writes in St. Paul, Minn. Write him at firstname.lastname@example.org.