Looking For An Alternative To College? U.S. Studies German Apprenticeships (#GotBitcoin?)
‘Too many people are checked out of even looking for a job,’ Birmingham, Ala., mayor Randall Woodfin said. ‘The apprenticeship track gives people hope’.Looking for an Alternative to College? U.S. Studies German Apprenticeships
Randall Woodfin, the young mayor of Birmingham, Ala., unseated a popular incumbent last year partly on a promise to bring in jobs. But one year in, the city’s youth unemployment rate remained high, and Mr. Woodfin was casting about for solutions.
That brought him this past fall to the boardroom of Bremen-based software company abat AG. Mr. Woodfin was there to observe Germany’s famed apprenticeship model up close and potentially persuade German companies to offer apprenticeship slots in Birmingham.
“Too many people are checked out of even looking for a job,” Mr. Woodfin said. “They need hope. And the apprenticeship track gives people hope.”
Mayors and governors of both parties tout German-style apprenticeships as an alternative pathway to employment, in the face of ballooning college tuition and the need for career options for noncollege graduates.
Support for increasing hands-on training comes from all corners—Democrats and Republicans, business and labor, the Trump and the Obama administrations. German Chancellor Angela Merkel even offered to support more apprenticeship slots in the U.S. with German companies during trade talks with President Trump.
Fascination with Germany’s apprenticeship model comes at a time when Germany itself is showing signs of fatigue with its own system and adopting a more-American college-based approach.
In 2016, about 52% of German high-school graduates became apprentices, down from roughly two-thirds 20 years ago. At the same time, 57% of high school graduates started college, up from about one-third two decades earlier.
On a tour of the software company’s training facility, Mr. Woodfin saw these contradictions up close.
A dozen men in their late teens flitted between classrooms and an industrial-looking floor with large computers and 3-D printers. The apprentices, studying to become programmers or engineers, split their time learning a nationally-standardized curriculum and working alongside mentors to learn the ways of the company.
The company had recently opened a U.S. office in Birmingham, and the mayor had come in part to ask executives to export their apprenticeship curriculum to his city. But when he inquired at the boardroom table, abat’s managing director, Jörg Pieper, demurred.
The U.S. government doesn’t regulate apprenticeships the same way, he said, and abat would need to invest more to build a quality curriculum. Because U.S. schools aren’t designed for apprenticeships, the company would have to look for applicants. And the credentials it awards might not be recognized by other companies, he added.
But there was a more basic problem, Mr. Pieper said—that of perception. “In the United States, from my experience, you are out of high school, and you are just labor, or you go to university. There is nothing in between,” he told Mr. Woodfin. “The apprenticeship—it’s not considered a good education.”
Yet for Alabama, it could provide one answer to what students do when they finish high school, Mr. Woodfin said.
About 85% of the city’s students graduate high school, but just 55% head to college. Many of the rest, Mr. Woodfin said, find themselves stuck in “dead end” jobs, or not working at all. As a high-school student, Mr. Woodfin said, he rang up groceries for class credit at a supermarket near his home, leaving school long before the closing bell. These days, he said, schools don’t promote work as an option, and many students don’t see it as an honorable way to learn.
“It’s on us to articulate that those options exist and should be valued,” he said.
Nationally, about 70% of U.S. high-school graduates enroll in higher education, but only 37% of those have graduated eight years later, according to Education Department data. People who attend only some college often face greater financial risk, defaulting on their student loans at three times the rate of college graduates.
People like these are the prime targets of apprenticeship advocates, who are attempting to forge alternative, viable career pathways through life without four years of college.
The German apprenticeship system, a relic of medieval guilds and tightly regulated by the German government and trade unions, is designed to offer such alternatives. A university education in Germany is free, but historically it has been reserved for top-performing students. Apprenticeship programs rest on a two-track educational system that can be jarring to many Americans. Students are tracked roughly by the time they are 10 years old; those destined for apprenticeships typically graduate after 10th grade.
The system is efficient, funneling workers into the labor force faster, but Germans are increasingly asking questions about locking in students’ futures when they are so young.
German apprenticeships generally offer a living wage for two or three years while students learn and work alongside experienced employees. While the few U.S. apprenticeship programs tend to be in blue-collar fields, German students apprentice in fields from computer science to robotics to marketing.
Marcel Schefer, a 24-year-old computer scientist at abat, became one of the first students at the company to complete an apprenticeship while earning a computer-science degree from a local university, all in four years. Mr. Schefer said he had planned to attend university full time but jumped at the opportunity to apprentice through the joint program.
“You have a more practical orientation,” he said. “You are already working at the company early on, so you get your hands on the practical stuff rather than just focusing on theoretical areas.”
Back in Alabama, Mayor Woodfin is continuing to experiment, recently announcing free tuition at the state’s community colleges for Birmingham high-school graduates. Even if many students want to go to college, he said, it is paramount to popularize other options, and for that, Germany remains a model. Since returning from Germany, he says he has brought at least two apprenticeship programs to Birmingham and is working on a plan to make scholarship money available to employers who otherwise couldn’t pay a full apprentice salary.
“Watching those kids, it’s like they said, ‘Here’s a playbook, mayor,’ ” Mr. Woodfin recounted. “We’re not trying to mimic Germany. We’re just trying to make Birmingham the best version of itself it can be.”
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