Learning From the Germans

Only 54 percent of Americans between the ages of 18 and 24 have jobs today, according the Pew Research Center, the lowest level since the U.S. began keeping track in 1948.

Eric A. Spiegel, president and CEO of Siemens USA, has what he calls a “simple solution. ” He presents it in a recent article on LinkedIn: “It’s time for the U.S. to tackle youth unemployment by borrowing from the apprenticeship programs we have developed at Siemens in Germany.”  That country has an ingrained apprenticeship culture, Spiegel notes, and its youth unemployment rate is just 7.5 percent — while Europe-wide it’s 24 percent.

Siemens is testing its apprenticeship model at a plant in Charlotte, North Carolina, where 18 recent high school graduates work while taking classes at Central Piedmont Community College in a 3.5-year program. “They will graduate debt-free with an Associate’s Degree in Mechatronics,” Spiegal writes, and “they will be Siemens employees with an average starting salary that is more than the average of a four year liberal arts graduate.”

Benjamin Franklin as a printer’s apprentice

Peter Drucker, who himself apprenticed in an export house, admired the German system. In fact, in a 1986 essay called “What We Can Learn From the Germans,” which appears in his book The Frontiers of Managementhe credits apprenticeship with a lot of Germany’s postwar success. “Young people entering the labor force spend three days a week at work and two and one-half to three days in school, for two years or so,” Drucker wrote. “They thus simultaneously receive both practical experience and theoretical learning, becoming at the same time skilled workers and trained technicians.”

Key to making it work was keeping the emphasis on formal theoretical education, the role of which we’ve often discussed. Apprenticeships focused on craft were, in Drucker’s view, “the wrong way to acquire skill,” since the traditional craft was “obsolete.”

The formal education that is required for knowledge work is education that can only be acquired in and through formal schooling,” Drucker wrote in Managing in a Time of Great Change. “It cannot be acquired through apprenticeship. … Even if the knowledge itself is quite primitive, it is knowledge that only formal education can provide.”

What role do you think apprenticeship ought to play in the U.S. economy?