What Germany Could Teach Washington About Skilled Jobs

Sep 2, 2014

What job are you qualified for after 12 years of public education in the U.S.?

“Not many, maybe minimum wage,” said Robert Bentley, 20, who lives on Seattle’s Capitol Hill.

Even as the national unemployment rate has fallen, youth unemployment remains high. The youth unemployment rate in July was over 14 percent. For black youths, it was nearly 25 percent.

Meanwhile, there's a shortage of skilled workers. But where?

Ron Taylor, president of Capitol Industries in Sodo, a steel shaping company, will tell you everywhere. It’s so acute that manufacturers here import workers from Ohio.

“Every industrialist you talk to if you ask their biggest problem, it’s, ‘I can’t find a machinist,’ ‘I can’t find a welder,’” said Andries Breedt, who runs a production tooling and design company in Kent.

An estimated 25,000 jobs went unfilled in Washington state last year – most in computer science, engineering and health care – because companies couldn’t find skilled workers. That number could double in the next three years to 50,000 unfilled jobs.

Why so many jobs available and so few young people employed? One reason is that the U.S. public education system doesn’t train people for these jobs. Community colleges and technical schools try to pick up the slack, but that costs money, which high school graduates often don’t have.

Recently I visited Germany on the RIAS Berlin Journalism Fellowship where I learned they have figured out solutions to some of these problems.

In Germany, 60 percent of young people go through one of 331 recognized training occupations: hair dressers, nurses, kindergarten teacher, web designers, bank clerks – even retail sales clerks get two years of vocational training.

Students attend school but spend several days a week working for a company, getting on-the-job experience and getting paid.

“In Germany we call it the dual system,” said Kay Schuebner. He apprenticed as a hairdresser. “You go into a studio and learn there. I had customers from the beginning. The first day I had my first haircut. It was very hard but very nice. It taught me very well. It’s easy and helpful if you’re a willing person.”

All this, free of charge.

The German system gets results. Most German students move right into jobs with the companies where they apprenticed. Sixty percent stay for at least a year.              

“You have a youth unemployment rate in German which is around 8 percent,” said Paula Protsch, a researcher at the WBZ Social Science Center in Berlin. This has gotten the attention of countries around the world suffering from job shortages and high youth unemployment.

But even if young people don't get a job where they apprenticed, their certification is a strong qualification for another job in Germany or in any other country in the European Union.

Why doesn’t the U.S. have a strong vocational system to get people in the trades? One reason is those jobs are invisible.

“You don’t see the stuff on TV, you don’t see it in consumer advertising”, said Dave Gering executive director of the Manufacturing Industrial Council of Seattle. “If you went by consumer advertising you would think the entire U.S. was involved in making cell phones. The actual economy is really diverse.”

“We do not recognize trades,” said Andries Breedt of Breedt Products and Design, a production tooling and design company in Kent, Washington.

“We are believers in a diploma, a thing that hangs on the wall, a four-year degree,” he said. “What we need are people to believe in tradesmen and recognize that by introducing the trades in the school system, which we don’t do now.”

There are 27,000 manufacturing workers in Seattle, according to the Manufacturing Industrial Council. 

Entry-level steel workers average $60,000. Experienced steel workers in Seattle average $85,000 to $90,000 before benefits. And if you’re worried about your job getting off-shored, plumbers and electricians are one category that will always be local.

Now you might be wondering why it would be hard to adopt the German vocational training system here.

“Since the economic crisis, a lot of countries are thinking of transferring the German dual apprenticeship system, but it’s not so easy as one might think,” said Protsch. She says the system requires close cooperation between business, labor unions and government.

“If you want to change something about that position all these groups have to come together. It can take 10 or 20 years, because it has to be by consensus,” she said. “This kind of cooperativeness is not present in the U.S.”

The German dual vocational system is not perfect. Not everyone can get into a vocational training program.

And despite the vocational training pipeline, Germany is trying to fill 117,000 jobs in science, technology and engineering, a gap that’s expected to grow. But that’s in part because of Germany’s population aging so quickly – skilled workers are retiring more quickly than new workers can be trained.

Still, I couldn’t help wonder why we don’t value machinists as much as people with master’s degrees, and why trade schools don’t have the prestige of universities.

There’s another reason the German dual vocational system would not fit in American culture. That has to do with the American dream: parents want their kids to get a college degree. That dream will persist, if there aren't good alternatives. 

Former Seattle School Superintendent Jose Banda acknowledges we’ve got an attitude problem.

“There is a mindset around the blue collar work and workers,” he told me. “Not only as a school district do we need to dispel that, as a city and a community we need to dispel that. It’s crucial work, it’s essential work, it’s part of the engine that makes Seattle what is today.”