The Herald Bulletin

July 8, 2013

German education model could hold key to closing Indiana's 'skills gap'

By Maureen Hayden
CNHI Statehouse Bureau

INDIANAPOLIS — Indiana's effort to close the “skills gap” between what employers need and what job applicants offer may be inspired by a German education model that combines a high school education with on-the-job training.

On Monday, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence met with Germany's ambassador to the U.S., Peter Ammon, who launched the German-backed “Skills Initiative” last year to help states improve their vocational education programs to make students work-ready when they graduate.

The “Skills Initative” program touts Germany's “dual system” of vocational education that allows students to earn their high school degrees while working as apprentices in specific occupations.

Echoing what he said he hears from German companies doing business in the U.S., Ammon told an audience that included Pence: “America is a wonderful place to do business. But the lack of a properly trained workforce is where the bottleneck is.”

The message resonated with Pence, who wants to redesign the way vocational education is delivered in Indiana's high schools and return vocational education to what he called its “proper place of prominence.”

Pence said the gap between what employers need and the skills that job applicants can offer is “absolutely real” in Indiana.

“What people don't realize is that while we have more than a quarter million Hoosiers out of work, we have tens of thousands of jobs that are going unfilled,” Pence said. Many of those unfilled jobs are in Indiana's manufacturing industry and require high-tech skills, but not a four-year college degree.

Indiana currently spends more than $100 million on vocational education for high school students, but Pence thinks the money needs to be better spent. Earlier this year, he signed legislation creating regional “works councils” tasked with partnering local schools with regional employers to develop vocational education curriculum to better serve both their needs.

Monday's meeting between Ammon and Pence took place at the main campus of Ivy Tech Community College in Indianapolis and was followed by a luncheon featuring Ammon talking to a group of business, education and government leaders.

Ammon said the dual system of vocational education in Germany has helped reduce youth unemployment by giving high-school students the real-world skills and education they need to find good-paying jobs while reducing the number of students with dead-end college degrees.

Germany offers vocational training for high school students in about 350 different occupations. About 75 percent of the cost is picked up by private employers, while the rest of the expense is paid for by the federal and state governments in Germany.

The dual education system in Germany dates back to 1969 and was developed as a way to address the nation's skills gap, Ammon said.

Ammon also said there has been a trend toward “over-academicization” both in the U.S. and in Europe as countries work to improve their workers' skills.

“The simple truth,” Ammon said, “is not everybody can become a neuroscientist, a lawyer or a financial wizard.”

There have been efforts in the past in Indiana to improve vocational education in high school, but the legislation signed by Pence that went into effect July 1 creates a new structure for evaluating how well schools are doing.

The regional works councils will be made up of employers and educators who will be charged with evaluating vocational opportunities for high school students in each region to see if they're driven by local employers' needs. The new law gives those works councils the authority to develop an alternative curriculum, which is subject to the approval of the State Board of Education.

Maureen Hayden covers the Statehouse for the CNHI newspapers in Indiana. She can be reached at maureen.hayden@indianamediagroup.com.