Should America Look to Germany for its Education Model?

What does it take to be cited as an example by current and former leaders of the most powerful nations on earth? Angela Merkel, the Chancellor of Germany, knows — the country’s business sector and its robust economy were mentioned twice by President Barack Obama in his State of the Union address, and even Tony Blair wanted to know what it took to keep the labor market this healthy.

What would it take to replicate the “German model” abroad? For a start, it may take ending the obsession with rising college enrollment rates. According to the Financial Times, nearly half of the country’s high-schoolers are tracked away from higher education into vocational studies by the time they turn 16. Nearly 40% of Germans enter the business world early as apprentices, a system that has fallen into disfavor elsewhere around the world.

But with the participation in the labor market falling, more politicians and experts are thinking that the system deserves a second chance.

Rick Snyder, the Republican governor of Michigan, and John Kasich, Republican governor of Ohio, have both recently toured vocational academies in Germany. The German embassy in Washington has even set up a programme called the “skills initiative” to cater to all the questions from the heartlands.

“The US is not a developing country so we don’t need to send teams of technical advisers into the field,” one German diplomat said. “We are just trying to respond to the curiosity about the German model.”

The apprenticeship system solves a dual problem for Germany – the same problems that the US is struggling with as it’s working its way out of the current recession. The American workforce is both under- and over-qualified. While more than half of Americans with a college degree hold jobs that don’t require that level of training, employers continues to complain that jobs in engineering and technology go unfilled because there are not enough well-trained candidate to fill them.

For a company such as Siemens, which has 60,000 American employees and recently reintroduced train manufacturing to the US (in a plant near Sacramento), the answer is simple. The US needs to rejuvenate its community colleges, which offer two-year vocational degrees but are often starved of funds. And it needs to fall back in love with apprenticeships. Benjamin Franklin started off as a printer’s apprentice in Boston. Many US trade unions, such as the pipe fitters and boilermakers, used to train their own. Perhaps they should remember their history.