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Perhaps the most prized real estate at the annual State of the Union address is the first lady's box, where, for over thirty years, persons of great distinction have been invited to sit and be recognized in the national spotlight. Foreign dignitaries, war heroes, renowned academics, innovators, and others of such esteem frequently receive the honor.
But no one sat closer to Mrs. Obama last year than Jackie Bray, a once-unemployed, single mother from North Carolina whose return to the manufacturing workforce was in part the result of a training model developed in Germany.
After losing work as a packaging mechanic, Bray enrolled in a new vocational program at Central Piedmont Community College (CPCC), one of the largest school systems in North Carolina. CPCC has partnered with Siemens, the German engineering conglomerate, to design the types of technical training classes that graduates need to work at their sprawling new Charlotte factory. For qualifying students like Bray, the company pays for tuition and training before bringing them on full-time to manufacture generators and turbines.
CPCC and Siemens also participate in an award-winning initiative called Apprenticeship 2000, a four-year program for select high-school juniors and seniors in which classroom instruction is combined with hands-on training at a Charlotte area technical company. While the program is still small, all of the apprenticeships are paid and result in a job. The school has built on this partnership by signing a pioneering agreement with a regional German chamber of commerce to offer its students an advanced manufacturing education that is certified by German industries.
This type of dual system, which partners private industry with vocational schools (typically with the support of government), has been the norm in Germany for centuries. About 60 percent of German high-school students looking to continue their education pursue an apprenticeship. Approximately half a million German businesses use apprenticeships to train roughly 1.5 million workers in 350 recognized jobs every year.
While still relatively rare in the United States (where it might be called a co-op), the German model is one the White House hopes to scale up. "I want every American looking for work to have the same opportunity as Jackie [Bray] did," the president noted in his 2012 address." Join me in a national commitment to train 2 million Americans with skills that will lead directly to a job."
In May of last year, the German Embassy responded to the president's challenge by launching the "Skills Initiative" at a conference sponsored by the Washington, DC-based Aspen Institute. The bilateral program aims to unite U.S. and German businesses with local education and training providers like CPCC. German Ambassador Peter Ammon has pledged to make the initiative a cornerstone of the mission's work in the United States, and is currently working with the governors of Ohio, Maryland, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Virginia.
For the world's fourth largest economy, it is not only an opportunity for cultural exchange, but a sound financial investment. More than 3,400 German businesses have investments in the United States, where the supply of high-skilled labor has not kept pace with the demand from those companies with U.S. operations. German firms currently employ more than 550,000 American workers, roughly 11 percent of the "insourced" jobs in the United States. And nearly half of these are in manufacturing. Germany accounted for $215 billion in U.S. foreign direct investment (fourth largest) in 2011, creating jobs in many struggling state and local economies.
For the United States, the partnership provides a highly effective vocational training model that could not only help educate the next generation of workers, but also provide a viable and attractive alternative to the four-year college trajectory.