When the First Rung Is Too High


The young man at the Apple Genius Bar asked me what kind of work I did while he was trying to fix my laptop last week. I told him, “I work on creating good jobs and higher skills in developing countries.” I also told him that 87% of the planet’s 1.2 billion 16-24 year olds live in developing countries where there are few good jobs and where the education and training systems are often completely out of synch with the needs of modern economies. He appeared interested, so I continued: “3 out of 5 of all the unemployed in sub-Saharan Africa are youth people living on less than $2/day. And one third of young people in Latin America are considered “Ninis,” as they are neither working nor learning a skill. And in the Middle East, some 100 million new jobs have to be created, just to keep pace with the new entrants into the region’s labor markets. While in the Asia Pacific region, half of all the unemployed are young people.

He listened carefully. Then he told me, “It seems the bottom rung of the ladder is getting higher and higher for everyone, me included.” When I asked him to explain, he said, “Well, it’s no longer about mowing lawns. You need ever more knowledge and skills just to get on that bottom rung of the ladder.”

He’s so right. Making the bottom rung reachable for a job that has career potential is what Germany’s dual system of education is all about. Calling the dual system an apprenticeship system misses the mark, however. It’s called the “dual” system because learning happens in two tracks: 2 days a week in school and 3 days a week in the workplace. Employers in each of many industry sectors of the economy define what skills an entrant into their industry needs. They sit on a committee with the educators and trade union representatives in their respective states (education is run by the states, as in the U.S.) and work out what skills should be learned in school and what skills must be learned at work (there’s a lot of research in learning theory behind their approach). The agreement forged by the employers, educators and trade unions, who call themselves “social partners,” becomes the framework for a 3-year curriculum that students, industry trainers in the workplace, and educators follow. At the end of 3 years there is a final exam that takes a day. Half of it is written, the other half a demonstration of how the apprentice handles a complex problem taken from their industry.

German and northern European employers don’t think in terms of work as a set of discrete tasks. That might have been true in the 1940’s when people did rote work on assembly lines. Instead they think in terms of processes. Making a product or producing a service consists of a set of processes, such as storing food, handling food, maintaining equipment, etc. These processes hold true for making honey in your family’s little enterprise in Greece or in a high tech honey production facility in Pennsylvania. Students learn the processes and they learn how to think about planning the steps in a process so that it can be carried out with maximum effectiveness. If, after completion, apprentices want to go on to university they go to school for a year or two and then can take the entrance exams for universities (all of it for virtually no cost).

Many think this system costs a lot. Yes it does in comparison to many other approaches. However, the cost is shared and much of it is borne by the employers who together finance the system, along with their Ministries of Education. Because they all contribute there is no problem with poaching, as is the case in so many countries. It also saves employers money. Instead of having to spend a lot to get new entrants ready for work, they can spend their own money by building on a common base of high skills and then training for their unique needs, improving each firm’s competitiveness.

German industry leaders tell me that the dual system is the best way to assure that they will have an abundant supply of high skilled workers so that they can continue to export high technology products within a competitive price range. If you have lots of high skilled workers your costs of producing something can be contained. If, as is the case in many countries, high skills cost a lot more, then your competitiveness vis a vis other countries/firms goes down because your product/service costs more than that of the competition.

Germany’s dual system is not just about learning or apprenticeships. It’s really about maintaining a large pool of high skilled workers in automotive, banking, insurance, retail, hospitality, and many other industries.

Does the dual system produce higher skills than, say, what people learn in the U.S. by attending technical schools, for example? Last year I had the opportunity to visit three German companies (BMW, VW and Siemens) in the Carolinas to examine how they are using the dual system in the U.S1. The three German firms are convinced that having young people learn in their workplaces and a nearby technical college is the best way to ensure having an abundant supply of high skilled future workforce. I interviewed some of the young people (between 17-20) doing the Mechatronics apprenticeships in the German firm. (Mechatronics is the fusion of mechanics, engineering, software, and electronics in one discipline – it’s a complex set of skills you need to work with the robots that make things). One was a young mother, another a young immigrant from Mexico, still another a former young construction worker. I asked them what they liked about the system. Here’s what they told me: “at the end of 3 years we get the top industry certificate in Mechatronics; we can go to work anywhere in the world with that in our pockets. We also have an Associate Degree with zero debt for our education. The company pays our tuition costs and they pay us a living wage. The world is our oyster.“

[1] You can find the 3 case studies on the ILO’s website:  http://ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/---ed_emp/---ifp_skills/documents/publication/wcms_244374.pdf