What's in a Skill?

What would it take for America to make structural vocational education work?

World Wide Ed

Before coming to Harvard, I spent a summer at a biochemical company in Monheim, Germany, working alongside other interns in an insecticide laboratory. Impressed by my colleagues’ knowledge, I assumed they were biochemistry students at university exploring a potential employer. I soon discovered, however, that they were students from advanced technical colleges completing the practical components of their programs. In fact, a majority of the full-time employees in my department doing work of a complex scientific nature had vocational rather than strictly academic qualifications. This is strikingly different from the norm in the U.S., where the minimum requirement for similar jobs is typically a bachelor’s degree.

This first experience at a German workplace gave me the impression that German society strongly values the variety of skills and talents that their education system is designed to produce—and not just in theory. The German system offers different vocational and academic options within a comprehensive structural framework, with many permeable options for students as they progress through secondary and tertiary education. For students preparing for higher education, for instance, there is the option of a purely academic pathway.  At the same time, there exist multiple other vocational or combined tracks, each with different emphases on academic study, vocational theory, and practical training supported by employers. This pervasive structural incorporation of vocational training into the education system allows graduates with different skills and expertise to be respected in society regardless of the perceived “prestige” of their chosen professions.

As such, it is unsurprising that only approximately 20 percent of German students opt to earn university degrees. Compared with the 68 percent of U.S. high school graduates who were enrolled in college in 2010, the differences between the two systems become apparent. In the U.S., there has been growing concern over the lack of structural vocational education, with some expressing the view that there are simply too many young people in college. College degrees, many argue, are so ubiquitous in the U.S. that they are no longer a reliable indicator of either knowledge or skills.

Known worldwide for consistently producing both cutting-edge ideas and world-class products, Germany is in no way lacking in either academic or technical talent. Rather, the diversity of respectable paths that are incorporated into the structure of all levels of the education system allows students to choose the paths that suit them best. This is in stark contrast to the system in the U.S., where it seems that the public response to the ever-increasing demand for an educated workforce has been to create still more academic options, resulting in a situation in which—to use a generalization—many students earn college degrees but acquire neither academic knowledge nor practical skills.

Many employers in the U.S. are starting to address this issue, which to them amounts to a serious crisis in workforce skills. With admirable foresight, they are building comprehensive training programs to encourage long-term, skilled employment. Some industry leaders are even pushing for the reincorporation of vocational options into public education. Beyond these sincere efforts, however, the U.S. needs to recognize the importance of fostering the right social context for the successful implementation of a structural vocational education system.

Germany has a relatively liberal, homogeneous, equal, and individualistic society where there is a pervasive understanding of the inherent value of a population with different strengths. Perhaps because of Germany’s cultural history, the modern perception of “education” still acknowledges the dissociation between “Bildung” and “Ausbildung”—or the ideal of whole-person humanistic development and the training that prepares one for a vocation. There is an understanding in German society, reflected by the humanistic curriculum that introduces literature and philosophy even to secondary students, that one can be an educated person in a classical sense even if one chooses a more technical vocation. Indeed, my experiences working, studying, and living in various parts of Germany have shown me that German society respects vocational training because everyone is expected to strive for this humanistic ideal of education regardless of the nature of the practical path that one chooses.

This is not to say that a system like Germany’s does not create certain systemic problems of inequality and inefficiency or that the U.S. cannot exhibit social support for such a system without a similar cultural tradition. Rather, there is room to learn from several aspects of the German model and to contextualize them for the U.S.. In particular, we need to recognize that the most important first step is to raise the social prestige of non-academic pathways so that students from all backgrounds can view them as genuine options. This will take a renewed cooperation between employers and the education system to make vocational options both attractive and stable and to promote the idea that there are multiple pathways to success. Only then could we shift from a system in which college is indiscriminately seen as the right path to a system in which there is a right path for everyone. This shift has serious potential to ameliorate the crises in the workforce and in higher education, and it might even prove to be a step forward for educational equality.

Charlotte C. Chang ’12 is a Germanic languages and literatures concentrator in Pforzheimer house. Her column appears on alternate Tuesdays.

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