The American Dream: Finding Success Down an Unlikely Path

Dual training, a system in which apprentices split their time between a vocational school and a real-life company work environment, is an extremely prevalent and respected practice in Europe. German children, for example, choose between an academic high school, a vocational track, or a blend of both at the ripe age of 10. While concerns regarding “set in stone” futures are valid, there are plenty of opportunities for trainees to change tracks, further their education, or even earn a specialist certificate. Depending on their chosen industry, apprentices receive payment for their time spent on the job, which typically ranges from two to four years. The dual training program explains why Germany has one of the lowest jobless rates among young people aged 15 to 25 of any industrialized nation. Although a complete adoption of the German-style apprenticeship program is unrealistic, incorporating various parts offers value and benefits for both the economy and citizens of United States.

In Germany, a substantial majority of people train as apprentices in fields including advanced manufacturing, IT, banking, and hospitality. A major issue leading to higher unemployment is a “skills mismatch” in the labor force, which occurs when there is both unemployment and unfilled job positions because the available jobs require skills that those who are unemployed lack. As technology advances, the “skills mismatch” will only become more severe. The German apprenticeship model ensures that students have a guaranteed position with the offering organization following the completion of the program, for an applicant must be assured a job contract is available before he or she can be enrolled.

Three primary factors attribute success to the German-based apprenticeship program: the respect the apprenticeship has throughout the country, the benefits that both the employee and employer receive, and the flexibility of the program regarding switching between tracks.

Unlike the United States, Germany sees apprenticeships as a position of honor. This pride is evident from the highly respectable fields that take full advantage of the apprenticeship model, such as IT, advanced manufacturing, and banking. Compared to Germany’s numbers, the United States touts a measly five percent of people who train as apprentices in the country; most apprenticeships are reserved for trade skills.

It is critical to highlight that many German businesses rely on the success of their highly competitive apprenticeship programs. Take, for example, a single Deutsche Bank located in Frankfurt, which receives on average 22,000 applicants for 425 available apprenticeship positions.

We know that a four-year track is not the only way to succeed.”

Both employers and employees benefit greatly from an apprenticeship system, especially compared to the short-term training model heavily used throughout the United States. Employers practically get to test out and ensure that apprentices are not only well-trained; with 2-4 years of experience, apprentices can come into the workforce program able to make a difference.

Another major distinction with the program is its flexibility — trainees can switch between tracks throughout their studies or apprenticeship program. Thus, if they dislike a job or program, they’re encouraged to switch to something that fits their skill set.

However, there are several potential implementation issues for bringing the program to the United States. First, the US corporate sector does not see technical and vocational training as its responsibility. It does not invest in these programs other than initial short-term training programs. Second, the short-term cost causes difficulties in getting businesses to partake, even though it results in a more skilled labor force for the future. Finally, the German system is centralized; the state plays a crucial role in regulating companies. Collaboratively, corporations and the government create a standardized curriculum so that regardless of what company an enrollee works for, they learn the same skills on the same schedule as others within the same industry.

Furthermore, oppositional critics of apprenticeship programs typically point to price being the major barrier for instituting a model within the country. There is a significant initial resource challenge that presents itself when an apprenticeship program is created: start-up costs, training costs, and preparing the curriculum, to name a few. Along with the overwhelming initial investment, critics claim that pushing children to pursue apprenticeships discourages them from pursuing a college education.

One possible way around potential deterrents is to take advantage of organizations that have headquarters in countries where apprenticeship programs are prevalent. Focusing on these companies would allow the country to benefit from already established relationships; mentors who understand the process could potentially help create a strategy to develop an American apprenticeship program.

There is false confidence associated with higher education. During the 2016 Youth Apprenticeship Summit, Governor Jay Inslee of Washington stated, “We know that a four-year track is not the only way to succeed in our state. And for too long we have been creating this implicit tacit message to our youth.” Governor Inslee realizes what so many other political leaders are starting to see: Skills mismatch is one of the leading causes of unemployment. Interestingly enough, 95 percent of college professors and administrators believe students are career-ready, but only 11 percent of employers agree with them. The skills mismatch problem could be approached by ensuring that students are fully prepared for their job. The best way to do that is to have them sharpen their skills in the field.

Although there are some potential implementation issues, the long-term benefits surely outweigh the upfront costs. According to one study, employers receive an average return on their investments of $1.47 back for every $1 invested in apprenticeship. In addition to this, nearly all of those who studied as apprentices find a job after completing their designated program with an average starting salary of $50,000. Furthermore, based upon some of the successes states with functioning apprenticeships are seeing we can predict the calls for apprenticeship programs will continue to grow.

Nations around the globe are shifting their focus towards creating, implementing and executing German-based apprenticeship systems. Eighteen states institute some form of a German or Swiss model. Furthermore, states such as Colorado, Georgia, and Wisconsin have fully functioning dual training systems, which explicitly target high school students. Some of the states, with functioning and successful apprenticeships, allow us to predict continuous growth for apprenticeship programs.

There is a current trend throughout the United States to make higher education accessible and less costly. However, it seems that a significant portion of the country is stuck in an old mindset thinking that the only correct form of education is going to college. This belittles the diversity of learning and education. Apprenticeships, although more focused on skills-based learning, are an innovative form of education. Not every person will go down the same path, just like not every individual is cut out for traditional education, but that is not to say that they can’t or won’t be successful in another form of education.

It’s time for the United States to step ahead and designate our focus towards innovation in the education sector. The German model embeds the yearning for knowledge within the workplace, and it creates an opportunity for success to those who participate. As innovation continues to swirl throughout all sectors of industry, markets and everyday life, it’s necessary for education to do so as well. Instituting a German-based apprenticeship model will strengthen the future of our country by giving younger generations more opportunities to succeed.