INDIANAPOLIS — Two years. That’s how long it takes William Lankin’s fast-growing electrical contracting company to teach new hires with four-year university degrees the tricks of the trade.
These college grads “have learned the book stuff, but they don’t have real-world experience,” said Lankin, vice president of Industrial Electric. “They don’t know how to work with other people, or subcontractors — how to actually do business.”
Bringing them up to speed while paying them a salary is time-consuming and expensive, and even then there’s no guarantee that they’ll be good enough to keep. Which only complicates the original predicament: In spite of the still-soft job market, companies like Lankin’s can’t find enough qualified workers.
Now some hiring managers, a few policymakers, and a handful of community colleges are accepting help to solve this problem from an unexpected source: the Germans.
Through an initiative being quietly promoted by the German embassy, U.S. colleges that consider themselves part of the greatest higher-education system in the world are importing the German model of career and technical education to keep up with a demand they can’t fill: for Americans with the right skills to work in mid-level fields.
“We said, ‘What is the best model?’” said Sue Smith, vice president for technology and applied sciences at Indiana’s Ivy Tech Community College, which has teamed up with Lankin’s company to create a program for prospective employees based on what the Germans do. “And, quite honestly, the German model is the best model.”
It consists of a so-called dual system of education and training that combines a few days a week of classroom instruction at vocational schools with on-the-job apprenticeships that are designed to lead to full-time jobs for which graduates are ready straight out of school. The German students also receive a form of credential called a certification qualification.
This simple setup keeps German industry humming, and youth unemployment down to about 8 percent — less than half of what it is in the United States — according to the German embassy.
By comparison, routes to similar careers in the United States are convoluted and confusing, even as the need for workers to fill them escalates, a study by the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development found.
The kinds of education required for these mid-level jobs — many of them in manufacturing industries that are expanding quickly in states including Indiana — are also getting more sophisticated. By 2018, two-thirds of all jobs in the United States will require more than high school degrees, the Georgetown Center for Education and the Workforce estimates.
And while colleges and universities are scrambling to keep up, business doesn’t think they have.
Ninety-six percent of chief academic officers from colleges and universities say their institutions are preparing college graduates for work, but only 11 percent of business leaders say they’re getting what they need, the Gallup polling organization found in a survey for the Lumina Foundation. (Lumina is among the funders of The Hechinger Report, which produced this story.)
About 30 companies and 30 community and private colleges are turning to the Germans, embassy spokesman Markus Knauf said. Most of the programs are still in the planning stages, though a few are under way. In addition to Indiana, they’re in California, Georgia, Kentucky, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, Ohio, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Virginia, and the District of Columbia. “Why not? Different methods of education can be very effective,” said Debra Kerrigan, dean of workforce training and continuing education at Dunwoody College of Technology in Minneapolis, which has teamed up with a local plant of the Swiss equipment manufacturing company Bühler to deliver the classroom portion of the German-style apprenticeship-and-classroom combination.
Many of the companies that are participating in these pilot programs are German owned, mainly because they’re already familiar with the system. About 3,400 German companies operate in the United States, the embassy says, though Ivy Tech is also launching collaborations with Cummins Engines and Chrysler.
“German companies get it right away,” Smith said. “You don’t have to explain it to them like you have to with the American companies.”
And there are a number of them in Indiana, whose history of German immigration continues to connect it with German culture, officials there say.
“There’s a lot of similarity between the way Hoosiers do things and the way Germans do,” said Sven Schumacher, honorary German consul to Indianapolis, who wears a lapel pin with the German and American flags and speaks of holding meetings about the education initiative at German companies based in Indiana over sausage and sauerkraut. “I think that’s helpful in understanding this, and I think it’s why German companies come to this state.”
Starting in the fall, Ivy Tech students will spend three days a week in class and two at companies like Lankin’s, where they will be paid for their apprenticeships. The college plans similar programs in advanced automation and robotics at the request of employers that run large assembly plants. Participants are expected to include traditional-age students and also people who want to change jobs or find new careers.
The Obama administration also likes the idea. It has announced a consortium of community colleges and industry to create an even broader system under which students would get academic credit for apprenticeships that Vice President Joe Biden said offer “a pathway to the middle class” and “a pipeline of skilled workers for employers.” Still, to catch up with Germany on a per-capita basis, the United States would have to add 2.5 million apprenticeships. About 358,000 exist today, according to the Center for American Progress, many of them organized not by companies but by unions.
Only about 10 percent of American 18- to 22-year-olds get on-the-job training, the OECD reports.
One reason is that it’s expensive. Ivy Tech has persuaded some of its corporate partners to reimburse the tuition of students who successfully complete their apprenticeships and stick around to work, for instance.
In Germany, employers pay 75 percent of the $19,850 annual cost of each trainee, and the government covers the rest.
“I don’t think there are a going to be a lot of companies that are going to be able to invest this kind of money,” Kerrigan said.
For students, on the other hand, it could be a good deal. Getting an academic degree before going into a mid-level profession adds an average of up to 18 percent to average salaries for men and 23 percent for women, the OECD estimates.
Lankin thinks it’s worth the investment — and that the long-established German system could help solve his staffing problem.
“They’ve been doing this for years,” he said. “That’s been the German philosophy for a long time: to train you for a job.”