Event Review: The Role of Higher Education in the Future of Workforce Development
• Volkswagen of America, Inc.
• German Center for Research and Innovation (GCRI)
Young people in the U.S. who are interested in continuing their education beyond high school face significant challenges. Not only is college tuition steadily increasing, there is also a dearth of options for those who do not attend. The low college completion rate poses a challenge for both the higher education system as well as the job market, as the youth unemployment rate approaches 13%. The increasing gap between the skills applicants can offer and the skills industry demands leads to a shortage of qualified workers that has become particularly apparent in the manufacturing sector. This is why German manufacturing companies have begun to implement the German dual vocational system in the U.S. The system combines on-the-job training with classroom learning.
On April 15, higher education experts from Chattanooga State Community College and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) as well as a representative from the Volkswagen Group of America convened at the German Center for Research and Innovation (GCRI) in New York to discuss the role of higher education in the future of workforce development.
Dr. Joann Halpern, Director of the German Center for Research and Innovation welcomed the panelists and provided an introduction to the topic. Stefanie Jehlitschka, the moderator of the panel and Vice President of the German American Chamber of Commerce of the Southern U.S., Inc. (GACC South), described the role of the chambers of commerce in the German dual vocational system. In addition to representing the interests of German industry, the chambers are the competent body appointed by the German government to organize training and examine the students, facilitate cooperation between companies and schools and make sure curricula address the needs of industry.
Dr. Sanjoy Mahajan, a professor at MIT, was the first presenter. He stated that the greatest reform in higher education has already occurred, namely the change of education from public good to private good, which led to a profit ethic that only benefits companies instead of society as a whole. He explained that the rising cost of education and therefore student debt leads to students being forced into socially harmful careers. As a result, some young academics who would love to teach become financial speculators instead because the salary is higher. Universities are also affected by the consequences of higher costs. Because the choice students make is not dependent on what is beneficial but what pays most, student enrollment in humanities courses declines. Dr. Mahajan called this “toxic for universities and the learning environment” because students don’t care if they learn or not. What he wants to see are universities that foster curiosity and do not succumb to what he calls ‘Marketism Leninism’, a market that becomes like a god because everybody caters to it. He concluded by calling for a new way to promote a social ethic.
Dr. Mahajan was followed by Dr. Jim Barrott from Chattanooga State Community College who spoke about the mission of community colleges and the cooperation between the Chattanooga State and Volkswagen. He explained that community colleges all want the same thing: to serve their community, whether this involves preparing young people to enter the workforce or helping them transfer to a four-year college. Tennessee is the first state to offer free tuition for community colleges through the “Tennessee Promise” program. Another program called “Reconnect” helps students over the age of 24 to acquire technical skills. Dr. Barrott explained that he sees a misalignment between higher education and workforce with people struggling to find work in the field they studied. He stated that there needed to be a paradigm shift in the way colleges work with companies and called the costumer-based partnerships “essential” to Chattanooga’s community. He recalled his trip to Germany where he witnessed an apprentice being trained during a workshop and was impressed by the mastery of technique. Through the cooperation with Volkswagen he tries to bring this mastery and work ethic to Chattanooga. Students who take part in this German-American apprenticeship program receive an associate degree in engineering technology plus a certificate from the German Chamber of Commerce, which allows them to work at Volkswagen facilities all over the world.
Sebastian Patta, executive vice president of human resources at Volkswagen Chattanooga, recalled that when Volkswagen came to Tennessee they did not hire people from the state, because they could not find people with the right skills. Still, Volkswagen wanted to expand and needed a skilled workforce, so they teamed up with the Chattanooga State Community College. Mr. Patta explained that in Germany 65% of students who are between 15 and 18 years of age chose an apprenticeship, which gives them a full education within a few years and enables them to go to college afterwards. In the U.S., 70% of high school graduates attend college, which leaves 30% of young people without exposure to a college education and a lack of experience and skills. Mr. Patta stated that Volkswagen is not only interested in college graduates, but also in this 30%, and added that it’s important to give people the opportunity of lifelong learning, which is offered by the apprenticeship program.
In the ensuing discussion, which was moderated by Ms. Jehlitschka, the panelists talked about the challenges and possible solutions for the future of workforce development.
Mr. Patta saw a problem in the bad image of manufacturing work. He said that manufacturing was still perceived as dangerous and dirty, although his is no longer true. He mentioned that this inaccurate perception not only influences students, but also parents, who are sometimes the main drivers of young people’s educational choices. If parents knew about the real world of manufacturing, they might see it as a good opportunity for their children. Besides Volkswagen, Chattanooga State Community College also works together with other German companies and develops degrees to fit their needs. When Wacker Chemie, a German chemical company in the Chattanooga area, needed to stop hiring for some time, other companies stepped in to hire graduates. Dr. Barrott said that the need for skilled workers is rising and that the programs, while developed for a specific company, also give students the skills to work at other companies. Dr. Mahajan addressed an issue about engineering that had also been mentioned briefly by Mr. Patta: Digitalization produces students who are able to use a computer, but cannot use circuits and do not have a good grasp of math, because they have been using technology to solve problems. Dr. Mahajan said, “Lots of technology doesn’t actually mean lots of knowledge about technology or how it’s built or how to improve or change it.”
Another point of discussion was the costs companies have to face when they start a program like the cooperation between Chattanooga State Community College and Volkswagen. Mr. Patta admitted that the program takes some time to be implemented, but he also saw fast improvements in the students and found the costs to be worth it.
The panelists then proceeded to answer engaging questions from the audience, which focused on the challenges and impact of the partnership between Chattanooga State Community College and Volkswagen and how programs like this can be realized more broadly in the future.