The Skills Initiative of the German Embassy in Washington

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Written by Ambassador Peter Ammon, Guest Contributor

Many U.S. administration officials, business representatives, state governments, and experts view the German dual system of vocational training, with its distinct notion of cooperation, as a viable model for success in closing the skills gap.

The shortage of skilled workers—particularly in the space between high school and university, which is geared toward the manufacturing industry—is a formidable challenge facing companies in their business and investment activities. This fact is supported by the German American Business Outlook 2013 of the German American Chambers of Commerce in the U.S. As a result, large companies are partially relying on in-house solutions to fill the gap, such as setting up their own training centers and cooperating with community colleges. However, this cost-intensive solution is more difficult for smaller businesses to implement.

In his State of the Union address on January 24, 2012, President Obama praised the cooperation between Siemens and Central Piedmont Community College in Charlotte, North Carolina, in training and employment promotion. In his State of the Union address on February 12, 2013, he expressly cited Germany as a model for improving vocational training in the U.S.

With this in mind, the German Embassy in Washington launched the Skills Initiative, which constitutes a focus of its work and that of the German consulates general in the U.S. The initiative is supported by the office of the Representative of German Industry and Trade and the German American Chambers of Commerce. The Embassy is engaging U.S. states to form regional partnerships between German companies and American providers of vocational training (primarily local community colleges). The aim of these partnerships is to improve workforce training locally on the basis of specific skill needs and thereby support German companies in their search for qualified workers. Individual aspects and basic principles of the German dual training system are adapted and applied to the U.S. system; examples of best practices are identified; and successful approaches are shared and disseminated.

A series of regional events were conducted to implement the aforementioned goals of the Skills Initiative, including, to date, roundtables and conferences in North Carolina, Ohio, Maryland, Indiana, Virginia, and Pennsylvania. Further planning and talks are currently underway to hold similar events in Wisconsin, New Jersey, Louisiana, and Texas.

The German-American dialogue on workforce training and development recently also got a boost through a tour organized as part of the Visitors Program of the German Government, with representatives from the business community, agencies, and colleges from seven U.S. states, the U.S. Department of Education, and union organizations traveling to Frankfurt/Main, Mannheim, Leipzig, and Berlin from June 30 to July 6, 2013. Following the tour, the participants often see themselves as standard-bearers in this effort and would like to try to incorporate important aspects into the curricula of postsecondary education, such as creating a better linkage between the needs of companies and the learning elements of college education.

In all the meetings and events, it became clear that the manufacturing of the future requires an intelligent combination of solid theoretical and practical skills. In addition, policymakers and other stakeholders were enticed to promote greater recognition and respect for trades and industrial occupations in society in order to help strengthen vocational training in the U.S. To this end, the news should be spread that occupations in the manufacturing industry today entail highly challenging tasks and offer very good career and job prospects.

Incentives for choosing such a career path could include the creation of more opportunities at schools for linking education to working life, for example, through company internships. A successful transition from school to vocational training is then facilitated through the expansion of career counseling at the high schools.

Often, companies would also like to see uniform training standards and better comparability of certificates in the U.S. in order to make it easier to deploy workers immediately following completion of training and to reduce the extent of subsequent training, which until now has often been necessary.

Ambassador Peter Ammon has served as German Ambassador to the United States since 2011. Previously, he was State Secretary at the German Foreign Office. He is a staunch advocate of free trade and has a strong personal interest in what it takes to build a fair, peaceful, and prosperous global order.

This article was originally published in the Diplomatic Courier’s January/Februrary 2014 print edition.