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German Job Training: a Success Story at Risk

Patrick Hallford's blue eyes are alight with the excitement of one who can see a long-cherished dream coming true. The young Texan has just completed a traditional German apprenticeship as an auto mechanic near Koblenz, Germany. "It's been the best two years of my life," he says.

Mr. Hallford's experience, part of a pilot program between the sister cities of Koblenz and Austin, Texas, is also a dream come true for employers back home, desperate for skilled workers.

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Germany's apprenticeship system, which provides on-the-job training to young people still in their teens, keeps getting discovered - or rediscovered - by educators and business leaders around the world. A government brochure on vocational education, available in 22 languages, surely qualifies as one of the most successful German exports of all time.

But the system, so highly regarded abroad, has hit a rough patch at home. With unemployment at a record high in postwar German history, many of the same firms that have been shedding jobs have also been shedding apprenticeship slots. It doesn't help that there's a bulge in the population now leaving school.

The shortage of apprenticeships has become a top issue for German Chancellor Helmut Kohl. Two years ago, employer groups pledged to increase the number of apprenticeships 10 percent. When numbers were announced a month ago, the 574,000 existing slots were 51,000 shy of the target. Education Minister Jrgen Rttgers claimed victory anyway on the grounds that the numbers did represent an increase, albeit of just 0.3 percent.

Given this backdrop, how did the Austin-Koblenz program get off the ground? Part of the explanation is that Koblenz expects to send some of its young people to train in Austin.

Seven American participated in the pilot program, doing two-year apprenticeships rather than the traditional three years.

To Carol Wright, director of school-to-work programs for the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce, what's appealing in the German system is that it takes young people still in their teens. There are apprenticeships in the United States, particularly in the building trades, she notes. "But they tend to be for older folks - 24 or 25 years old. It's hard for younger people to fit in." The many teens who enter the work force straight out of high school need "real skills," she says.

Social responsibility?

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Many education and labor experts have urged the start-up of German-style apprenticeships in America. But the idea hasn't taken off, partly because many employers don't want to invest in workers who may take their skills to a rival firm.

In Germany, by contrast, job training "is seen as a serious social responsibility," says Bernward Eckgold, head of training at the Handwerkskammer Koblenz, the city's skilled-trades guild, which coordinated the apprenticeships for the Austin youths.

Apprenticeships have long symbolized each employer's investment in the future of the community as a whole, not just in the firm itself.

Now, however, that tradition is being tested. Critics see the apprenticeship shortfall as part of a broad fraying of the social compact among workers, employers, and the nation.

"In the beginning was the word, and it was broken," was the headline on one commentary.

Volker Rossocha, secretary for youth affairs at the labor federation DGB in Dsseldorf, asserts that employers simply don't want to maintain the traditional apprenticeship system anymore. "They'd rather have narrowly trained workers who can do just one job, who cost less and are more tied to that one firm, than broadly trained workers." Also, government support of apprenticeships in the former East Germany, where no such programs existed, has made West German firms believe that they, too, should be subsidized, he charges.

The DGB has developed a proposal requiring all employers either to train apprentices or to finance them elsewhere.

Karl Spelberg, training director at ZDH, the skilled-trades employers' federation, rejects this idea. "Not every firm is suited for training apprenticeships. And what happens if a firm offers an apprenticeship - a butcher shop, for instance - and the slot isn't filled? Does this mean the firm has to pay for some young lady to train in the banking industry somewhere else?"

The system is not "in crisis," Mr. Spelberg argues. Rather, it "needs to make some structural adjustments," in part because more young people are coming into the system. By 2003, Germany may need as many as 850,000 apprenticeships.

Sister-city program to continue

Meanwhile, Koblenz and Austin aim to continue their venture.

Plans are in the works for a second group of apprentices to come to Koblenz in the fall of 1997, but with more preparation than the pioneering group had, including more language training.

"We've written a letter to tell them what kinds of things they need to know about," says India High, who has just gotten a certificate for finishing an apprenticeship in baking. "It's the weather; it's the store hours; it's what clothes you need."

Other members of the initial group from Austin trained in carpentry, confectionary, and office management. Three practiced auto repair. All these areas are both traditional German specialties and skills in great demand in the United States.

Businesses in Austin "want trained people they can hire," says Ms. Wright of the Chamber of Commerce. "With our unemployment rate at 2.9 percent, they're just scraping the bottom of the barrel for workers." She was in Koblenz at a special "graduation" celebration for the the apprentices.

After two years working on anything that rolled in the door at Kraft & Knebel GmbH, Hallford can count on being much in demand as a skilled mechanic. And working on cars, he says, "is what I've always wanted to do."

"Oh, they know about him back at the Audi dealership in Austin," says Glenn West, president of the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce. "He hasn't called them yet, but they'll be calling him."

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