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To Fill Skills Gap In U.S., Schools Look Abroad


One big challenge in the U.S. economy is the skills gap. Employers are finding workers just don't have the skills to get the job done. The White House has focused on the problem. At a manufacturing plant this year President Obama said the United States has to improve job training programs and community colleges and trade schools are trying. Susanna Capelouto reports on why Europe might have some tips.

SUSANNA CAPELOUTO, BYLINE: A group of teachers at Atlanta Technical College recently took a class on how to teach German style. And they discovered that tests will have to be given in new ways. It will be...


CAPELOUTO: Their instructor is Norbert Fuhrman, a veteran teacher from a vocational college in Detmold, Germany. He's trying to introduce his American colleagues to the style known as problem based learning. It's where students from different departments work on projects together to learn skills.

: Here in the U.S.A. students study for tests. Major question: Will it be on the test? But in Germany the system is project oriented.

CAPELOUTO: And that project learning is part of an elaborate training system where companies must hire apprentices for three years and they come as young as 16. I recently visited a small town in Northern Germany where I met such a teenager. Bianka Guluk was just ready to start a trade.

BIANKA GULUK: (through translator) You go to school for 10 years and you just don't want to go anymore. At least I didn't want to. You want to know what it's like to work.

CAPELOUTO: Now Bianka sits in a small office of a solar and plumbing installation business. She still goes to school but only six days a month. She's mastered the names of plumbing parts and knows how to figure labor cost. This teenager already has real life responsibilities.

GULUK: (through translator) It's cool. You create the invoice by yourself send it out and you see in the account that customers pay the bill you wrote. And they don't complain that the apprentice did something wrong.

CAPELOUTO: When Lowell Turner heard about 16 year-olds deciding on a career, he was skeptical and thought teens should not be boxed into a profession that early. But then the Cornell University professor became an expert on the German apprentice system and likes it a lot.

LOWELL TURNER: You don't get trapped in something. You know, by 16 typically you know if you're going to be an A student that's going to go to an elite college or not. It's our mid-kids that are not going to elite colleges that fall through the cracks. You know, and then we get a lot of high-school dropouts.

CAPELOUTO: And Turner says once an apprenticeship is complete, students in Germany can still go to college. He says while the apprenticeship is the reason Germany's workforce is one of the highest skilled in the world, he also knows it's impossible to import it to a U.S. job market, because industry here is driven by short-term goals.

TURNER: Because the German system relies more on long-term capital. So we have these short-term capital markets which mean we have to show quarterly profits, which means that it's very hard to make long-term investments in your workforce.

CAPELOUTO: The U.S. also has weak unions, Turner says, and in Germany unions have a lot of say in workforce training. But the biggest influence on guaranteeing skilled workers in Germany are the chambers of commerce which give out the apprenticeship certificates, says Martina Stellmaszek with the German American Chamber of Commerce in Atlanta.

MARTINA STELLMASZEK: It's a very different system where actually it's mandated by law that each company has to be a member of a chamber. So this goes back hundreds of years. The chambers fulfill a lot of different roles and education is really one of these big roles.

CAPELOUTO: There are plenty of pilot programs at community colleges around the country that dabble in creating a better workforce, but as long as state and local governments are the main provider of vo-tech education, experts say it will take a while to fill the skills gap in the U.S. For NPR News I'm Susanna Capelouto in Atlanta.


GREENE: This is NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Susanna Capelouto