5 notions Minnesotans have of the German dual-education system


German factory

As I mentioned in a previous post, the head of MnSCU’s workforce development program seemed impressed with what she saw while checking out Germany’s dual-education program in June.

Mary Rothchild and other members of the Minnesota delegation were trying to see how Germany mixes education with vocational training. After all, workforce development and hands-on education are hot topics at the moment.

She said that when she and her colleagues started the trip, they had a handful preconceived notions that they wanted to test:

“We were successful in dispelling some, but sometimes the experience reinforced others.”

Here’s what they thought going into the experience — and what they found out:

Students are tracked at a young age.

That’s still true, for the most part. Students, Rothchild said, are assessed as early as 10 as to whether they should go on a path to a university or go into the skilled trades. And Germans accept that for the most part.

She said, however, that the system is becoming more flexible. Germany is permitting more students to go to college even though they’ve been on a vocational track, and she said the group met several students who’d changed tracks. Parents now have more say in their children’s future, and can appeal tracking decisions.

Germans also do a good job of counseling students about careers, she said. Each student in the state of Baden-Wuerttemberg — in which Stuttgart is located — is required in their early teens to take a career counseling course. Compare that to Minnesota, which has a poor track record of providing student counseling — or the United States in general, which she says has a figure-it-out-on-your-own attitude.

When students were ready to start their training in their mid- to late teens, she said, they applied for apprenticeships in whatever fields interested them. German employers selected students to fill the positions they had open.

Rothchild sounded like the support that the tracked students receive — such as free education and training, health care and a liveable wage — was worth the perceived tradeoff of freedom:

“Tracking is a bit antithetical to anything we’ve designed here in the United States. On the other hand, the benefits to the individual — and the commitment by the companies and the government to apprentices — was an extraordinary revelation.”

Apprenticeships are union-driven.

Not true. Unlike here in the United States, Rothchild said, German law requires private industry to provide apprenticeships — with the support and advice of unions and the state. They made joint decisions on what skills were needed as well as what education and training they’d provide. Private industry also accepted that apprentices should be paid a liveable wage, and along with unions determined a wage scale that paid students more as they became more competent.

Students are stuck on a one-way path to one specific job.

Not quite true. Apprentices, Rothchild said, can work in their trade and then receive additional education, such as a business or engineering degree. With a business degree they could, for example, become business managers in their vocation or even start their own companies.

So although they might remain in their industry, she said, they could have a much different job from the one they started out with.

This white-collar-worker-with-blue-collar-experience dimension gave Rothchild the impression that Germans had a more well-rounded approach to manufacturing than we do:

“The really cool ‘aha’ thing in my mind was … they have this notion that even if you want to be an engineer, you should start out understanding what a machinist does. And by understanding materials and machine technology and production operations, you’re a better engineer. … And that makes a better product.”

The apprenticeship system is marginal to the German economy.

Not true. Half of the high school students in Baden-Wuerttemberg enter the dual education system. But Rothchild said the groups she spoke to said numbers are decreasing a little bit. Fewer students are expressing interest in the trades, she said, and more German parents are pushing their children toward a university degree.

German society is homogeneous.

That appeared to be true, though Rothchild said she may have not gotten the full picture. From what the delegation could see, industry in the Stuttgart area was not particularly diverse.

She said executives and education officials told her their immigrants were largely scientists and engineers. Rothchild didn’t get the impression the system was used to dealing with immigrants or undereducated adults who were starting on a career later in life.

In the end, she said:

“How can you quarrel with the liveable wage jobs, free health care, free education and a system that permits students at a young age to explore their interests, academic aptitude and start their apprenticeship education as early as 16?