Learning from Germany’s Education System

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This past week, eighteen of us from the City of Seattle and the Port of Seattle went to Hamburg, Germany to see how their city has rebuilt and transformed into the vibrant community it has become.  We met with leaders who are addressing urban transformation and inner-city development, port partnership and trade development, educational and employment needs for workers entering innovative industries.

Hamburg, the largest seaport in Germany and the third largest port in Europe, is emerging as a leader in science, technology, and environmentally sustainable industries among others.

As an historic note, Hamburg has been a maritime leader for 800 years, and has been rebuilding over the past 70 years.   Much of the city was flattened — and 40,000 Germans killed — in July 1943 after intense Allied bombing. Following the war, Hamburg became a major beneficiary of the post-war Marshall Plan, and our trip was hosted by the German Marshall Fund, a non-profit founded in 1972 in honor of the US Marshall Plan’s assistance to Germany.

Hamburg has made impressive gains in the number of jobs available at entry levels as well as for those with engineering and high-tech degrees. It also has a 95% high school graduation rate and one of the lowest percentages of youth unemployment of any city anywhere.

We can emulate what’s been successful in Hamburg in two specific areas: creating permanent living wage jobs at the entry level, and adding to our local education system to provide what industry desires: a pipeline for an educated workforce ready to go to work.

One especially successful German program addresses the needs of both qualified workers and businesses.  It is called the Dual Vocational Education and Training Program.

Over 1.4 million post-high school German students — including immigrants — study in the Dual Vocational Education and Training program known as the Dual System.  Dual Vocational Training is more than basic vo-tech.  The program requires hands-on training on site at the business partner 3-4 days per week, and requires students to learn theory and study at the partner technical school 1-2 days per week.

We visited the Hamburg Institute für Berufliche Bildung, where we joined experienced teachers and leaders from Handelskammer Hamburg — their Chamber of Commerce — and talked with students who had been already hired by Airbus.  Airbus pays them a modest monthly stipend to study, and the students’ remaining tuition is paid by industry and taxes. Students have no educational debt upon graduation.

We toured the Airbus facility with senior apprentices who will soon become fulltime employees there.  The students and teachers say three-quarters of students complete their studies and go to work at the business that supported them through school.

Here’s the key question for us in the Seattle region: “Where are the qualified workers?”   We can now begin to answer this question by building our own version of the Dual Vocational Training system targeting the needs and working with our local schools, colleges, unions and businesses.

In Germany, the training curriculum and exams for over 300 occupations are developed by a combination of experts from industries, vocational schools, unions and the workers themselves. This way students learn the skills the industries need and are ready to contribute the day they graduate.

Seattle can emulate this model by building on our existing partnerships with organizations including the Economic Development Council of Seattle/King County, Seattle Round Table, the Martin Luther King County Labor Council and leading through a joint committee that includes Port of Seattle, Seattle’s Office of Education our Office of Economic Development and more.

This is the opportunity of a generation. Let’s say we build on the Core Plus program at the Seattle Skills Center at Rainier Beach High School and create a pilot program with Boeing, Vigor, and other interested companies.

Let’s say we set an annual goal of including 10% of our Seattle Public School students in a Seattle-version of the Dual System. These students will be identified during high school, invited to participate as interns and apprentices, will be financially supported during their training, and ready to work in our growing local business and diverse industries upon graduation.

This new approach can answer the “Where are the qualified workers?” question.  We can create our own pipeline.

For this model to work, Seattle businesses and industry seeking qualified and ready-to-work employees must contribute both expertise and funding to pilot this new program.

This pilot could help us create an equitable community like never before. If we identify and prioritize students from low-income or struggling families early on, we may support them to become part of an educated workforce with hope and genuine opportunities.  5,000 well trained students a year would go a long way toward addressing industry’s needs.

We cannot afford to leave job development to chance, nor leave any student behind. Let’s give this generation a shot.