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Skills Initiative: Calling for More German-American Cooperation in Workforce Training

Monday, February 04, 2013

Opportunities for intensifying German-American cooperation in workforce skills development was the focus of a high-ranking roundtable forum hosted by Ambassador Peter Ammon as part of the German Embassy’s Skills Initiative. U.S. Deputy Secretary of Commerce Rebecca M. Blank was the keynote speaker at the forum, which also brought together Volker Treier of the Association of German Chambers of Industry and Commerce (DIHK), CEOs of numerous German companies invested in the United States, education and training providers, and other experts.

An educated and skilled workforce is the most important resource in today’s global marketplace, Ambassador Ammon said in his welcoming remarks. “Here we need not compete against each other, but we can cooperate to our mutual benefit.”

German companies invested in the Unites States, he said, cite the shortage of properly skilled workers as a top concern. These German companies are also well positioned to help because they are versed in Germany’s first-class vocational and education system, Ammon said. This dual system, as it is known, is a major reason for Germany’s economic success. “It provides sound qualifications through its unique combination of theory and practice, permitting learning and working, in parallel.”

The Skills Initiative is working with US states, German companies in the US and education and training facilities, like community colleges, to spread the word about the dual vocational training model, to share best practices, and ultimately, to help fill more jobs with capable, well-trained people. The forum hosted by Ambassador Ammon on January 29 was the first edition in the “German-American Dialogue” series in 2013, a high-profile series on foreign and economic policy topics initiated by Ambassador Ammon in fall 2012.

Keynote Speaker Deputy Secretary Blank

Deputy Secretary Blank welcomed the initiative. “The Commerce Department stands ready to serve as an active partner in this and other efforts under the Skills Initiative,” Blanks said. She continued: “It is clear that the moment for us to collaborate more closely on workforce development is now.” The long-term competitiveness of the U.S. economy will depend upon a skilled workforce and the ability to stay on the cutting edge of innovation, according to Blank. “The same is true for Germany. So it’s appropriate for us to discuss how the German model for skills training could help strengthen our workforce here in the U.S.”

It is particularly in the area of serving students who are not entering a four-year degree program but who are interested in technical and apprenticeship training that there are challenges, according to Blank. It would be smart for the US to learn more about the dual system, she said. “Germany has excelled in this area, and we would like to learn from the ideas and best practices that have flourished there. In particular, Germany’s dual system of vocational training has captured the attention of many nations. There are clear benefits of blending continued classroom education alongside hands-on experience. Germany has proven this approach to be a cost-effective way to strengthen its manufacturing base, to bolster its competitiveness, and to help its economy maintain traction–while also providing clear paths to good jobs for high school graduates.”

Increasing skills requirements

In the subsequent discussion, participants outlined specific needs and opportunities for cooperation. Eric Spiegel, president & CEO, Siemens Corp., USA, stressed that the skills gap is real and likely to become more urgent. “We are on the edge of a potential manufacturing renaissance in the US,” he said. “We see a lot more advanced manufacturing coming to the US. This is just going to require greater and greater sets of skills in the manufacturing environment, and that again is where I said is where the big gap exists for production workers.... So we need to solve this problem pretty quickly.” His company already runs a successful apprenticeship program based on the German model in cooperation with Central Piedmont Community College in Charlotte, NC.

Volker Treier of the DIHK underscored the role of the dual system in keeping the youth unemployment rate in Germany relatively low. He also highlighted the ability of the worldwide network of German Chambers of Commerce (the AHKs) to help companies abroad implement principles of the dual system. Norbert Weichele, CEO & general manager of Zentis Food Solutions North America LLC, said that not only is it difficult to recruit qualified workers, it is hard to keep them long-term. American University Professor Robert Lerman said there is too strong a focus in America on university education, to the detriment of vocational training. In addition to political leadership and funding to strengthen vocational training, Lerman said the appreciation of vocational training in society needs to change.

Following the national launch of the Skills Initiative and the first regional forum in Ohio last year, further forums are currently planned in Maryland, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Chicago, Virginia, Wisconsin, New Jersey, Louisiana und Texas.