What a German Master Can Teach Us About Vocational Education and Training (VET)

vocational education and training (VET) benefits
Mr Milz overhauled
this 100 years-old grandfather clock.

Despite having an unacceptably high unemployment rate, the US manufacturing sector has over 600,000 unfilled jobs. This is due to the fact that our educational system isn’t producing graduates with the skills that are sought by employers.

Nancy Hoffman, author of the book Schooling in the Workplace: How Six of the World’s Best Vocational Education Systems Prepare Young People for Jobs, argues that the United States should adopt a European-style education system, in which students in their last two years of high school have the option of participating in highly structured workplace apprenticeships that involve working for pay several days per week, and spending the rest of the time in the classroom. This system is known as vocational education and training or VET.

So what are VET’s advantages? Meet August Milz, a product of Germany’s VET system. As a youngster, Mr. Milz spent two years at a clock school in Germany, and then served as an apprentice at a clock manufacturing company. He went on to run a number of successful clock repair shops, and is currently the owner of A M Clock Repair SVC, Inc

Following is a recent interview with Mr. Milz. It describes how he ultimately found his calling through VET.

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How did Germany develop such a strong vocational education and training (VET) system?

Unlike the US, Germany doesn’t have natural resources that are the basis of the economy. In Germany, the economy is based on production—not on the stuff that comes out of the ground. The government supports—and the system supports—learning a trade, doing something, building, working. The whole system goes back to the Middle Ages. Working in a trade was highly valued as only honorable people were eligible to participate. During this time, Germany wasn’t even a national entity; it was a political entity. In contrast, in the US, the only entity that supports education for tradesmen are the unions. For example, carpenters and electricians have to be licensed, which requires that they are able to demonstrate that they have been properly trained and educated in their specific trades.

What made you decide to go into the clock field?
Two things. One was that my schooling for higher education was interrupted because of World War II. When things normalized again, I was told that I was too old to pick up where I left off. My father had a small clock factory before the war that was closed during the war. My grandfather was a clockmaker as well..so it was a family tradition. I grew up in manufacturing.

What type of vocational education and training (VET) was available for someone wishing to learn about the clock trade?
I grew up in Schwenningen. a city located near the Black Forest where all of the major clock companies were located. There was a clock school in town. The institution had a three-year educational program involving a parallel apprenticeship. Students went to school and worked at the same time.

After going to school and apprenticing, a student got their diploma. But the diploma didn’t entitle them to own their own shop, or teach. The students had to work another 6 years under a Master, learning how to design their own mechanisms. Then they had to take an exam, which—if they passed—enabled them to become a Master. Only then could they own their own shop, or teach. That’s how the system worked.

What was your personal experience with the program?
While attending school, I worked in a factory that had a large machine shop where they made the clock’s internal mechanisms. I learned about the workings of the machinery, and how to set them up. Eventually, I was put in charge of production. As a result of this experience, I completed the entire program—schooling plus apprenticeship—within 2 years.

Does Germany still have clock schools?
Yes, it does. A couple of months ago I got a call from my nephew. His son is starting clock school, beginning as an apprentice at Junghans, where he works at the company three days a week, and then goes to school for 2 days a week. He will continue with this schedule until he finishes his apprenticeship.

In terms of the clock industry, how should VET be applied here?
There are two aspects to consider. One is designing new mechanisms; the other is repairing existing clocks. The education for each category is different. We don’t need Masters in the US, because —although the US used to be a great manufacturing center—today clocks are made in other countries, and then imported to the States. A Master learns how to design the mechanism, calculate the number of gears, and all that. There is no need or market for that. The need is for repair.

What should be done in terms of US vocational education?
For over 100 years clocks have been imported here. There are countless millions of clocks, but there is nobody to take care of them. That’s why I decided to come here to open up repair shops. There is definitely a need for a clock repair and maintenance school in the US; however, any new program must also include working as an apprentice.

August, Thank you!

[My comment: There are similarities between the plight of Doug Oberhelman, CEO of Caterpillar, whose company is unable to find qualified factory workers, and August Milz, owner of A M Clock Repair SVC, who can’t find properly-trained, clock repair people. Both individuals run businesses that are constrained by a lack of qualified workers. This is ironical, in light of our high unemployment rate.

Only by reforming our educational systems, can we hope to solve this problem. We must develop more meaningful partnerships between business, academia, and government. Ultimately, the goal should be to integrate school and work experience in a specific career area, ending the distinction between academic and vocational preparation.]