The Ausbildung is widely touted as an example other countries should follow. But it’s struggling to keep up with technological change.
Within buildings 10 and 30 of the Siemens complex on the outskirts of Munich, the next generation of German workers are toiling over a range of test projects. The assignments are carefully chosen to impart the skills needed to continue the German miracle in automated manufacturing.
In one room, a group of young men train to be automotive mechatronic engineers. They’ve just spent the past week feverishly programming a diminutive working model of an automated production line—complete with sensors, conveyor belts, and tools that work without human input. They’re able to discuss their work in surprisingly good English, but what sets them apart from their peers in the US is that none of them attend a university.
Most started at Siemens fresh out of secondary school at age 16. Instead of paying tuition and fees—a mechanical engineering program with a mechatronics concentration at a school like North Carolina State University costs some $25,000 to $44,000 a year—trainees receive a small salary while they learn.
The Siemens training is part of a vocational program in Germany that is heralded globally for speeding roughly 500,000 young people a year into the workforce. Last year, the country hit a record high 1.279 trillion euros ($1.51 trillion) in exports. It did this, despite high labor costs, by being the most automated country in Europe, with 309 industrial robots per 10,000 workers. Vocational training is at the heart of this success, and politicians in the US, from both the left and the right, have pointed to it as a system worth emulating.
Such advocates cite the so-called skills gap in many advanced countries: the inability of companies to find people with relevant technical expertise. To close that gap and tackle youth unemployment, Donald Trump last year pledged around $200 million to expand apprenticeship training in the US. Barack Obama started a similar program in 2015.
But some experts warn that Germany’s system will struggle to adapt as the economy grows more dependent on AI and robotics. While AI may provide a long-overdue boost to productivity growth, some say vocational programs could shackle much of the workforce to skills that will soon be outdated. “Germany has shown that they can prepare people for a range of jobs today and over the next decade,” says Eric Hanushek, an economist at Stanford University. “What they haven’t shown is that they are preparing people who are as adaptable when the economy changes.”
Our Commentary @ Competence 4.0
Creating centers for competence development in manufacturing is proven to be challenge including for industry juggernaut like Siemens in manufacturing powerhouses like Germany. Vocational is a longstanding tradition that has shown its effectiveness but need revamping.
At Competence 4.0 in Stockholm, we learn how other industry leaders build their competence centers on a foundation of personal effectiveness, academic, and workplace competencies where each tier is comprised of blocks representing the skills, knowledge, and abilities essential for successful performance.
Competence 4.0 will be held in Stockholm next November from 26-27, 2018 and address how various companies across the manufacturing world prepare their workforce for the future. You can download the program here.