Sometimes the 'Makers' Act Like 'Takers'

Could American businesses learn from foreign ones a lesson in self-reliance?


When Mitt Romney made his infamous comments about the "47 percent" who "are dependent upon government" — who "believe the government has a responsibility to care for them" — he wasn't talking about the business community. Perhaps he should have been.

Listen to any group of business leaders for more than a minute and you'll get an earful about the crisis in "workforce development." America's economic performance, says the Virginia Chamber of Commerce, depends on "a workforce that possesses the skills and knowledge that employers need." Millions of people are looking for work, and millions of jobs are open for hire, but the former can't fill the latter "because of gaps in skills and training." There simply are not enough students "emerging from our public education system" with the necessary know-how.

That is why the U.S. Chamber of Commerce wants the federal government to streamline its "national employment and training system." Why it wants a public-education system that will "supply American businesses with the talent necessary to compete globally." It is why, according to a recent news story, the Virginia Chamber "wants the state (to) put more emphasis in public schools on preparing students for skills needed in science, technology and health care careers."

The state seems willing — even eager — to oblige. As Virginia Gov.-elect Terry McAuliffe put it back in October: "We have to improve workforce training. To recruit 21st-century employers, Virginia needs to show that we have a workforce with both the soft skills businesses need and the specialized training 21st-century industries demand."

Nobody seems to be asking why the state should shoulder the burden — and the cost — of training workers to suit the needs of industry. Is that really the purpose of public education? Why doesn't industry train its own workers?

Yes, American business does a lot of workplace training — but clearly not enough, if it faces such an acute shortage of "human capital." Perhaps business in the U.S. could learn a thing or two from other countries.

The other day The Washington Post ran a story reporting how Siemens and other companies are importing the German apprenticeship model to the United States. The article profiled Hope Johnson, who decided to forgo college and instead take a four-year fellowship with Siemens — which is training her at a plant in Charlotte, N.C., and with which she expects to have a lifelong career. Siemens and several other companies have formed an apprenticing partnership with local community colleges. Students who are selected get free tuition, hourly wages — and, at the end of the apprenticeship, a guaranteed job.

Some of that is going on here in Virginia — with companies such as Areva, Babcock and Wilcox, and (yes) Siemens. Rolls-Royce recently kicked off an apprenticeship program at John Tyler Community College. Thanks to the space program at Wallops Island, students at Eastern Shore Community College are learning how to launch rockets.

"In Germany," the article noted, "it's not unusual for students to stop traditional high school at the equivalent of 10th grade and spend several years working and studying" toward a technical career. By contrast, "Among U.S. companies . . . managers expect job applicants to arrive with skills already perfected." Why is that?

The apprenticeship model has downsides. It asks people to choose a lifelong path while they're still teenagers. It also defines a narrow pathway: Companies underwriting apprenticeships choose the curriculum. "There used to be an elective among the 24 courses the students take," The Post notes about the Charlotte program. "That was replaced with a logic class. The companies balked at paying for 'the history of rock-and-roll,'?" according to the local program coordinator.

But that bug could also be a feature: Many students at traditional four-year colleges (and their parents) pay wildly inflated tuition that subsidizes such intellectual junk food — not to mention climbing walls, $90,000 dorm rooms, and gourmet dining halls. The students graduate with excruciating debt loads, but no jobs.

It's odd that the business community, which likes to think of itself as innovative and solution-oriented, is looking to the decades-old public education system to solve its worker-training problem. If there is such tremendous demand for technically literate employees, then why hasn't the business sector tried to meet it? Put together a consortium, raise some venture capital and launch a national STEM-H University with a branch campus in every state. Companies from Apple to Xerox should be delighted to hire the resulting product.

That would be the self-reliant, market-oriented thing to do. But if U.S. companies sit back and wait for government to "supply American businesses with the talent" they need, then aren't they — like Romney's 47 percent — simply demonstrating the belief that government has a responsibility to care for them?