In a sprawling chemical plant in the town of Leverkusen, in northern Germany, Bayer trains thousands of students every year to become future employees.
Roger Heps, 19, is one of those trainees. He’s learning to run the plant where the primary ingredient in aspirin is manufactured. Heps is in a classic German apprenticeship. It includes on- and off-the-job training, while he studies at a technical college.
Germany’s tracking system divides children up at a young age, placing them on different paths; some students are selected for eight years of university prep school, others for six years leading to an apprenticeship instead of college.
The German apprenticeship system provides for a well-trained workforce, but also gives many young Germans a ticket to the middle class. Youth unemployment in Germany is currently 8 percent, half of what it is in the United States.
Companies and the German state cover the cost of students’ training, but students at Bayer also get paid about $1,200 a month.
Since Bayer hires 90 percent of the people it trains, Heps is optimistic he’ll have a good job at the end of his third and final year of training. When he does, he could be earning a starting salary of more than $60,000.
Freider Wolf teaches political science at the University of Heidelberg, one of Germany's most prestigious institutions. He says the 60 percent of Germans who choose the apprenticeship program over traditional college have become the country’s “blue-collar aristocracy.”
"If you can support yourself on industrial income — buy a house, drive a big car — why do you necessarily have to go to university?" Wolf says. "[These workers] are highly skilled and the education they receive is attuned to the needs of these industries."
Wolf says while there are “intellectual snobs” who look down on young people going to technical colleges, for the most part these future craftsmen are very well respected.
“For the competitiveness of the German economy, they have much more impact than the political scientists we're training here [at university],” he says. “The problem now is that all ways of education compete for a limited number of young people."
Lessons for America
Comparatively, Nancy Hoffman, vice president of the Boston-based nonprofit Jobs for the Future, says the U.S. doesn’t have a strong history of vocational education.
“We don’t have a tradition of employers thinking long-term about building a pipeline of young professionals,” she says. “We have a screen for employees which is, ‘Do you have a four-year college degree?’”
Since the 1970s, Americans have seemingly stigmatized vocational education. Hoffman says in large part that was because of America’s racial history.
"Vocational education was the place where you dumped all the kids who couldn’t do anything else and unfortunately a lot of those kids turned out to be black and brown kids,” Hoffman says. “So, not only did you have a working class stigma but you had a stigma of, ‘You’re sending all of our minority kids to these schools.'”
Instead, says Hoffman, the U.S. should consider adopting a system similar to the German model, something that allows young people to be in a mix of work and school.
“They may turn out to be philosophers and sociologists, but they may also turn out to love engineering and IT,” Hoffman says. “We provide very few opportunities for young people to have that kind of experience."
But American employers have traditionally been slow to invest in apprenticeship programs. In Leverkusen, Beyer apprentice Heps says he is passionate about what he's learning, and he knew he wanted to work here from an early age.
"It started in seventh or eighth grade, and I noticed it was fun to get to know the chemical elements and see the reactions. That was when I decided to work here," he says.
Even though he’s 19, he’s not concerned about changing his mind.
“I'm working at the chemical plant and they are changing the work every week. There's so much going on,” he says.
In the United States, the German model is slowly catching on. Eleven states, including Massachusetts, Virginia and California, are trying to introduce on-the-job training for students in some schools.