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June 14, 2017

Roger Heps is in his final year of on-the-job training at Bayer as part Germany's vocational education system (Mallory Noe-Payne/WGBH). 

This story originally aired March 4, 2o15.

Employers in America are having a crisis in confidence when it comes to college graduates and their preparation for the workplace. The latest Gallup poll shows only 11 percent of U.S. business leaders ‘strongly agree’ college graduates have the skills they need to succeed. That’s why our On Campus team traveled to Germany, where a different approach to higher education is yielding strong results.

Bayer Leverkusen is one of Germany’s top soccer teams.

It’s also the name of a well-known company, as in Bayer Aspirin. That’s because Bayer sponsors the team. They play in Leverkusen, a factory-town with a history so intertwined with the pharmaceutical company that it’s earned the nickname Bayer Town.

But Bayer does more than sponsor sports teams. In a sprawling chemical plant in northern Germany, the company also trains thousands of students each year to be future employees.

Roger Heps, 19, is one of those trainees. He’s learning to run the plant where the primary ingredient in aspirin is manufactured. Heps is in a classic German apprenticeship. It includes on- and off-the-job training, while also studying at a technical college.

The German apprenticeship system is drawing worldwide attention. It not only provides a well-trained workforce, but it also gives many young Germans their ticket to the middle class. Youth unemployment in Germany is at 8 percent, half of what it is in the United States.

Companies and the German state cover the cost of students’ training, but students at Bayer also get paid about $1,200 a month.

And since Bayer hires 90 percent of the people it trains, Heps is optimistic he’ll have a good job at the end of his third and final year of training. When he does, he could be earning a starting salary of over $60,000.

‘Blue-collar aristocracy’

Students at Bayer get paid for their work, learn trade-skills, and are likely to be hired. (Mallory Noe-Payne/WGBH). 

Freider Wolf teaches political science at the University of Heidelberg, Germany's most prestigious institution. He says the 60 percent of Germans who choose the apprenticeship program over traditional college have become the country’s blue-collar aristocracy.

"If you can support yourself on industrial income – buy a house, drive a big car – why do you necessarily have to go to university?" Wolf said.   "[These workers] are highly skilled and the education they receive is attuned to the needs of these industries."

Wolf said that while there are “intellectual snobs” who look down on young people going to technical colleges, for the most part these future craftsmen are very well respected.

“For the competitiveness of the German economy, they have much more impact than the political scientists we're training here [at university],” said Wolf. “The problem now is that all ways of education compete for a limited number of young people."

  What can America learn?

The German system has the rest of the world sitting up and taking note. As American employers bemoan the lack of well-trained workers, and parents and students question the value of a four-year degree, there are lessons to be learned here.  

Related: Skills Gap May be to Blame for Difficult Job Search

Nancy Hoffman, Vice President of the Boston-based nonprofit Jobs for the Future, says the U.S. doesn’t have a strong history of vocational education.

“We don’t have a tradition of employers thinking long-term about building a pipeline of young professionals,” Hoffman said. “We have a screen for employees which is, ‘Do you have a four-year college degree?’”

Since the 1970s Americans have stigmatized vocational education. Hoffman said in large part this was because of America’s racial history.

"Vocational education was the place where you dumped all the kids who couldn’t do anything else and unfortunately a lot of those kids turned out to be black and brown kids,” Hoffman said. “So not only did you have a working class stigma but you had a stigma of, ‘You’re sending all of our minority kids to these schools.' 'They’re not going to get jobs.'”

Instead, said Hoffman, the U.S. should adopt a system similar to the German model, something that allows young people to be in a mix of work and school.

“They may turn out to be philosophers and sociologists but they may also turn out to love engineering and IT,” Hoffman said. “We provide very few opportunities for young people to have that kind of experience."

But American employers have been slow to invest in apprenticeship programs, and they've been unwilling to change their mindset about the best way to train their workforce.

In Leverkusen, apprentice Roger Heps is passionate about what he's learning, and he knew that he wanted to work here from an early age.

"It started in seventh or eighth grade, and I noticed it was fun to get to know the chemical elements and see the reactions. That was when I decided to work here," said Heps.

And even though he’s 19-years-old, he’s not concerned about changing his mind.

“I'm working at the chemical plant and they are changing the work every week. There's so much going on,” said Heps.

In the United States, the German model is slowly catching on. Eleven states, including Massachusetts, Virginia and California, are trying to introduce on-the-job training in some schools for students aged 15 to 20.

This is part three in our ongoing series that examines higher education in Germany, and compares it to the challenges we face here in the U.S. 

To see the rest of the stories visit German Lessons: What the U.S. Can Learn About Education From Germany

German Lessons, technology and innovation, voc ed

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