Singular Love for a Dual System: A Messe Dialogue about German Apprenticeships

Earlier this week, Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker and German Federal Minister of Education and Research Johanna Wanka came together at the Hannover Messe for a panel discussion on how the United States and Germany can collaborate on expanding apprenticeship. Let’s unpack that mouthful of a sentence. Germany and the United States? Education and Commerce? Apprenticeships? How does it add up?

As architect and advocate for a joint agreement our governments signed last summer, I have had to answer this question frequently. The short answer is that both sides have much to learn from each other when the dialogue is open and desire for partnership is there. Germany’s apprenticeship model is a gold standard, and Minister Wanka pointed to Germany’s low unemployment rate and employer satisfaction as two metrics of success.

One panelist brought a uniquely cross-cultural view of the German dual system. Frank Sportolari, the Chicago-born managing director of UPS-Germany, was raised in the U.S. system and has several children being raised in the German system. While lauding the German dual system, he also noted the uniquely American acceptance of failure and 2nd, 3rd, and 5th chances—of starting over without starting from scratch. The German system makes this hard; the U.S. education and training system allows easier stacking of credentials such that students who earn and learn through an apprenticeship are not penalized when they learn that they prefer a different career.

At the same time, we in the United States have much to learn from the German system, and through a joint declaration of intent signed last summer, have committed to working with our German partners to expand apprenticeships in the United States. As Secretary Pritzker noted, states like Kentucky, South Carolina, and Illinois are adopting and adapting the German model. In Illinois, a consortium led by the Illinois Manufacturers’ Association Education Foundation and including the German-American Chamber of Commerce won a $3.9 million American Apprenticeship Grant to expand apprenticeship, pre-apprenticeship, and career pathway programs. The German-American Chamber brings to the consortium a training program developed using German industry-defined competencies and requirements and that leads to an associate degree, a German industry certification, and a job for at least two years upon completing the program.

Secretary Pritzker called for German industry to make a firm, measurable commitment to expand apprenticeships in their U.S. subsidiaries. Doing so, they would follow in the footsteps of companies like UPS, which is on the way to meeting its commitment to send 2,000 people through its U.S. delivery driver apprenticeship program by 2018 and also has sent 1,000 people through its German apprenticeship program over the past decade. Together these efforts would bring us closer to meeting President Obama’s goal to double the number of apprenticeships in the United States.

In both the U.S. and Germany, the demand is there for workers. Job openings in both countries are on the rise while the unemployment rate in both countries is around 5 percent. At the same time, U.S. companies are taking longer to fill the average opening, up from 17 days at the end of the Great Recession to more than a month now. By adding apprenticeship to their recruitment and training portfolio, U.S. companies can broaden their candidate pool and build a trained workforce. 

Doing so is a considerable commitment, and now is a better time than ever to make the investment. The U.S. Department of Labor has made $265 million in new investments to expand, innovate, and diversify apprenticeships, including the $3.9 million that will deliver more German-style apprenticeships in Illinois. This funding already is catalyzing change in how our country thinks about apprenticeships. To realize the change, though, it will take partnerships like that exemplified earlier this week by Germany’s Education Minister and our Secretary of Commerce.

Guest blog post by David Langdon, Senior Policy Advisor, U.S. Department of Commerce