RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
As we heard yesterday, manufacturing accounts for nearly a quarter of Germany's economy. In the U.S., it's about half that. American presidents have long envied Germany's ability to generate well-paying manufacturing jobs. NPR's John Ydstie found that a key element of Germany's success is their apprenticeship training program.
JOHN YDSTIE, BYLINE: Nineteen-year-old apprentice Henrik Tillmann is sitting at a workbench at Hebmuller Aerospace.
HENRIK TILLMANN: I prepare it for you, OK?
YDSTIE: So you're going to build it from bottom up here. Oh, I see.
TILLMANN: Yes. Yes.
Tillmann is assembling a valve that will be used in a commercial aircraft galley kitchen or lavatory.
Do you know what it - where it goes in the airplane?
TILLMANN: Yeah, it's for the galleys.
YDSTIE: Tillmann is training to be an industrial clerk. Valve assembly will not be part of his job, but he will be a better clerk, says his boss, Axel Hebmuller, because he'll know this valve inside out when he describes it for customers.
AXEL HEBMULLER: I think it's much easier for the young people to understand what they're learning when they get a little practical work with it because then they can seeing what they learn at school.
YDSTIE: As an apprentice, Tillmann spends 3 1/2 days here at work each week and 1 1/2 days at a government-funded school. Hebmuller, a co-founder of this firm, located near Dusseldorf, says small companies like his rely on apprentices. In fact, that's how he started his career.
HEBMULLER: I was an apprentice at the local bank. This was where I got my economy degrees.
YDSTIE: Hebmuller says only three of the 16 people who work for his company went to university.
HEBMULLER: Even in some of the big, big companies in Germany, in the upper management levels, you have a lot of people that only had an apprentice and don't have any university degree.
YDSTIE: Every year, about half a million young Germans enter the workforce in apprenticeship programs. They provide a steady stream of highly qualified industrial workers that help Germany maintain a reputation for producing top-quality products. Felix Rauner, a professor at the University of Bremen, is one of the world's leading authorities on apprenticeships and vocational education. He says U.S. presidents have noticed Germany's success.
FELIX RAUNER: Every president of United States in the last 30 years, after becoming elected, said, oh, we should implement the apprenticeship system.
YDSTIE: And Donald Trump is no exception. Last June at the White House, Trump signed an executive order aimed at boosting the number of U.S. apprenticeships by nearly tenfold to 5 million. But experts doubt the move will have much impact because of a lack of funding. Professor Rauner says historically, the U.S. approach to vocational education has been ineffective, partly because it's often not directly connected to specific jobs at real companies. Also, says Rauner, U.S. society has stigmatized vocational education, so most American parents see college as the only path to status and a good career for their children. But in Germany, there's still lots of prestige attached when someone trained through apprenticeship achieves master status.
RAUNER: If, for example, someone gets a master title, it would be published in the local newspaper, and there is a huge celebration. It is an important event. No one in Germany is interested if someone gets a master degree in a university.
YDSTIE: Dr. Ludger Deitmer, Rauner's colleague at the University of Bremen, suggests the failure of the U.S. to widely provide this kind of training has hurt U.S. manufacturing.
LUDGER DEITMER: Vocational training should be one of the medicines - a key medicines in how to make America great again. Why not? This is exactly what the country needs.
YDSTIE: But one hurdle is getting American companies to buy in because of the cost of training an apprentice. In Germany, a firm bears the cost of in-house training and pays the apprentice a modest wage.
DEITMER: But in the second year, they're already doing 60 percent of the workload of a fully skilled worker. So there is a return.
YDSTIE: Deitmer says that cheap apprentice labor reduces the net training cost to the company to a little over $10,000. And he says the real payoff for the companies is that after three years, they've got a highly skilled worker. U.S. firms often complain about a lack of skilled workers, but the U.S. has struggled to create widespread apprenticeship programs.
Felix Rauner says growing a viable American apprenticeship system will be difficult, partly because the U.S. has historically had a barrier between schools and business, and partly because of the fractured nature of U.S. education, with 50 states in charge.
John Ydstie, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF TRAMPIQUE'S "EARTH")
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.