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