At the end of World War II a grateful American people enacted the GI Bill of Rights that rewarded our nation’s returning veterans with college or vocational educations and low-cost loan guarantees to purchase homes and start businesses.
The result? Two decades of the healthiest economic growth in our history. Rather surprisingly, this was also a time of high taxes, especially on the wealthiest Americans (some incomes were taxed as high as 90%), stiff regulation, high safety standards and tough labor union contracts. But today many qualified people are having trouble finding employment that offers a living wage. What happened?
Our president stirs up his loyal blue-collar voting bloc by blaming illegal immigrants for taking Americans’ jobs and also for causing an out-of-control crime rate that, incidentally, doesn’t actually exist. To be sure, some jobs have been lost by companies moving off-shore in order to pay lower wages and lower taxes. Most jobs, however, have been lost to the microchip — in other words, automation. And these jobs will probably never come back. Technological progress is seldom reversed. Then what’s the answer?
Is our problem a lack of education? Present studies indicate we have more college graduates today than job openings that require a degree. After almost a century of encouraging young people to finish college, the U.S. economy today is running short on skilled craft people and technicians. For comparison let’s look at Germany’s export-oriented economy.
Germany produces proportionately far less college degrees than we do but many more vocational-school graduates. Germany’s vocational education system might best be described as an “enhanced apprenticeship operation.” Most of the German students’ early training takes place in the classroom. But then the curriculum is gradually transitioned to more on-the-job practical experience.
Under this well-thought-out system the German student is fully trained, experienced and ready to go to work at graduation time. The German system is used in fields as diverse as manufacturing, banking, retailing, communications, construction and hospitality. The theory that the students learn in class is supplemented and reinforced by practical on-the-job experience. German schools are also teaching more than manual skills because in the future there will be robots to turn the screws. German students are being taught to solve problems and become skilled, thoughtful, self-reliant employees who can improvise when things go wrong.
Once widely used in the U.S., apprenticeship training fell out of fashion several decades ago. Although we couldn’t expect Germany’s system to be transplanted intact here, take root and thrive, we could certainly use it as a model from which to put together our own American vocational training system.
And, by the way, privately or religiously-run schools are a rarity in Germany. Most schools there are operated by the federal or state government. A free-enterprise advocate all the way, I have never been quite sure though that functions such as teaching, criminal incarceration and medical care lend themselves to regulation by the profit motive.