Friday, February 22, 2013

Cherman Engineering

I read an article today by Stephen Hill in the Atlantic about how President Obama is looking to Germany as an economic role model. Specifically, the article addresses how Germany has managed to maintain a healthy manufacturing sector in the face of international economic woes and increased competition from cheaper labor markets.

I found the article particularly interesting because I think it touches on a few very good points where the U.S. can learn from Germany (and Europe in general). First, the author talks about how German industry maintains a healthy industrial Mittelstand (middle class - but referring to middle-sized businesses rather than individuals) that specializes in high tech, high precision goods. These companies actually supply the Chinese manufacturing juggernaut with the tools they need. In most cases, these companies have workers that get paid well and have full health coverage. Most important, however, is the fact that none of this would be possible without a strong (and longstanding) link between private companies and Germany's vocational training programs:

"The Land of Bismarck has fed its manufacturing machine with a steady supply of technicians, engineers and skilled workers through a superb apparatus of vocational training and technical apprenticeships. Companies work closely with regional technical schools, sometimes sponsoring programs to prepare the graduates so they are immediately job-ready." 

Though trade school numbers in Germany are high, they've also seen declines since the 90s. Source: German Federal Statistical Office.

As the author states, Denmark does an even better job of this than Germany; the vocational schools there know years in advance exactly which companies will need to fill which positions. I think there are two big challenges that the U.S. would face in trying to emulate this kind of workforce planning. With a population about four times the size of Germany's and many more times the size of Denmark, coordinating the needs of companies and the respective training programs would be much more difficult in the vast United States. Second, and more fundamentally, a paradigm shift would have to happen in the U.S.: I feel like in the last 20-30 years, young Americans have been told time and again that you've come up short if you didn't go to college and at least complete a Bachelor's degree. Many students who did reach this goal, and beyond, are now finding that college degrees aren't all they were cut out to be, and meanwhile, U.S. manufacturers can't find skilled workers. I think there needs to be a general reevaluation of the "value" of vocational training, along with various other professions beyond skilled industrial labor (Primary and secondary school teachers are the first that popped into my head).

The second thing that the author brought up that I found particularly interesting was the fact that "Germans have harnessed their wealth to foster an equitable and broadly shared prosperity that has given Germans an enviable living standard." A comment from a reader expounded on this: "In many ways, Germans are simply better at living and working together. They have a sense of national community combined with inherent resourcefulness which, when combined with smart and inclusive policies, ensures a great part of their long-term success." Though I think both of these writers are on to something, I also think both are perhaps a tad on the idealistic side in ignoring many of the shortcomings of German society. I think that Germany in fact has many of the same internal divisions and conflicts that are also present in the U.S.; but in Germany, the fierce American individualism and libertarianism is notably absent, so that highly progressive taxes and a robust welfare state are widely accepted facts of life (one indicator of this: the FDP are the strongest anti-tax/pro-business party in Germany – though not nearly as extreme as the Republicans or Tea Party – and after seeing their best result ever they still only received 14% of the vote). These social programs actually work for the most part, and the result is that the gulf between rich and poor is not nearly as wide as in the States.

Finally, a bit that the article does not mention: that despite having all of these efficient vocational training programs that help maintain a healthy manufacturing sector, Germany has also piggy-backed on some of the extremely harmful developments in the working world that the U.S. has spearheaded. I'm talking here about the rise and spread of the concept of the eternal intern (see this article from the Washingtonian). It's a buyer's market (for the employer, that is) out there on the job market, so German as well as American companies know they can get highly educated people to work for next to nothing because they want to gain some experience; at the same time, employers don't have to make any long-term commitments to most of their workforce.

As a former TA, I'm finding out now that I jumped out of the pot and into the fire of the private sector: it all looks a whole lot like what I experienced as the current employment model at universities: fewer and fewer well-paid professorships and an army of well-educated, underpaid "teacher-interns" teaching courses previously taught by professors. With the number of 'real' jobs shrinking, this 'well-trained army' in turn has nothing to look forward to but vicious competition for the few positions that remain. Not only is this employment model unsustainable, it will eventually come back around to bite employers in the ass as well. In the end, an intern with little or no job security and little hope for a permanent position are also less invested in their employer's success. It's a scary world out there, so let's hope the U.S. starts copying more of the German model when it comes to vocational training, and that the Germans realize that they're better off not taking a page out of the States' book in this case.

[steps down from soapbox]

Update: A new look for vocational training in the U.S., from NPR's Morning Edition


  1. I fully agree with your observation on vocational training. This forms a great part of our sucess in engineering. You should always keep in mind that germany (as japan, too) is a country with almost no resources. So we absolutely depend on our manufacturing an engineering skills. On german engineer with an university degree is backed by 10 workers with vocational training which understand his sophisticated commands and orders. This makes us very efficient in the engineering world.
    I have a lot of friends living in the U.S. or have lived there and they share the same impression: It is not easy to find a skilled craftsman if you have to fix your house or something. A friend of mine had to call 7 ! different carpenters until someone finally could fix his roof. This does not happen in Germany owing to a very restricted access to this craft-professions. The is an obligatory there-years vocational training-on-the-job programme, then you have exams etc. This would not be possible under US-legislation. Even in Germany there is a lot of debate going on because the state limits the constitutional-guaranteed access to work to gain a high-quality-level in this professions. Of course this conflicts with flexibility. In general, US-Americans are way more flexible, spontaneous and operative which is an big advantage on the other hand.
    A fascinating point you mentioned which absolutely exist is that commón sense: It is really hard to define what that is, why it is and where it comes from:
    First of all one should not confuse this “common sense” with patriotism. There is a lot of patriotism and libertarian thoughts in the U.S., which forms a nation of people who really like to think forward in an optimistic way and who take responsibilities. I think big part of the US-Success besides global-strategic topographic advantages and huge resources is the patriotism-drive. US-americans are self-confident and have self-esteem, they are risk-takers while Germans tend to be more conservative in this.
    But, this commón sense in Germany is not patriotism: I think it is more a Prussian relict of feeling very close to the state, of feeling part of it and the big influence Kant and the whole enlightenment-movement had in Germany. So the categorical imperative:
    “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.[“
    had an enormous impact in Germany and still has. In fact, Germans as the japans are not very rebellious or anarchistic at all, which also leads to horrible consequences: So there was a lot of oppositions against Hitler but in my opinion a lot of people preferred an dictator to anarchy (in contrast to Italy, where people “love” anarchy and do not trust in the state as an institution at all ). Of course, I am exaggerating here to make my point clearer. In Japan there was the same phenomena.
    But I think this is some typical German: Redeem yourself for the commón sense.
    So why is this: I think in germany the laws are not so different from the US (except penal law which huges sanctions and death penalty in the U.S. in some states, which is a barbaric shame for such an industrialized country). But what keeps us moving is a high social pressure to follow the rules, to behave I an social manner orientated to the commón sense. So this Schavan/Guttenberg doctor-degree-scandal

    I get an allergic reaction seeing Anette Schavan on a foto, but I think this is a personal issue which should not be discussed here.
    is not even thinkable in other states. I think the problem is not so much that they betrayed, it is more that they are disappointed and violated the image of an straight and honest german not thinking in the commón sense.
    In fact, in an functioning democracy, the citizens ARE the state so that I personally could never understand this image of a state as “enemy” limiting your freedom and I never will. This argument is not valid in an democracy cause YOU decide about this limitations. For that reason, the “soziale Marktwirtschaft” in my opinion is the only possibly system for all states, and this tea-party-thinking, which exist in germany and other European states has no logic to me. It is not that I don¨t like it, I do not UNDERSTAND it.
    So, as you are praising the German vocational training and second degree education in general you must not forget the embarrassing downside:
    The first degree educacion from the age 6 – 14 is the most unfair in any industrialized nation, although there are hardly not private schools as in the US. But the public school system which in theory should guarantee equal access has mutated to a discriminatory unfair system, because the access and good grades depend on parents efforts. The US in contrary have a great system to support lower-class people, if talented, via internships and extra-courses. Something which hardly exist in young-age education at all. The scholarships for the Universities in the end are even taken by relatively rich kids in the end, cause the poor where “filtered” even before in school. There is a life-deciding change at the age of 10 in Germany, when you go to gymnasium or Hauptschule or Realschule which absolutely marks your future. This is completely ridiculous and must be mentioned, too. For further details go to this page:
    The topic of the eternal-intern: This was an recent political discussion: Work without paying should be prohibited immediately in every state, it is close to slavery (with a voluntary element which slavery not has). They discussed the possibility of a law but obviously failed. Shame!
    By the way, here in Lima none of this things exist at all. Everybody is fighting for himself or for his family, its get rich or die trying. And there is no patriotism (except football) and no commón sense at all. US and Germany are helping a lot via USaid and GIZ so we can be all proud of our states in this development sector.
    So, back to my hard work.


    1. i wanted to say: the tea-party-thinking which ALSO exists in Germany...