03/04/2013 12:40 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The German Jobs Machine

It seems impossible to believe that in a country with 12 million people looking for work, there are nearly 3.7 million open jobs in America, right now. But that's what the Bureau of Labor Statistics says, and a chunk of those unfilled jobs -- up to 275,000 depending whom you ask -- are in the manufacturing sector. That's significant because these jobs are some of the best paid vacancies out there, and they don't require a degree from a four year college. Skilled machinists, industrial mechanics and anyone remotely familiar with robotics can command salaries that start at $50,000. Advanced manufacturing is poised to make a big comeback, and a ramped-up manufacturing sector could be just what this country needs to pull itself out of the economic muck. That is, if the companies can find the right workers. Unless something is done, experts say, the skills gap in manufacturing in the United States is supposed to grow to 875,000 unfilled jobs by 2020.

Ever since the end of World War II, America's young people have been abandoning the factory floor and going to college. In droves. But today's factories aren't the dirty or dead-end places they once were, and today, a diploma from a four year college is hardly a guarantee of a good paying job. The average person who takes out loans to pay for four year college ends up with $26,500 in debt upon graduation. Is it time to re-examine our country's "college for all mentality"? In his State of the Union address two weeks ago, President Obama suggested it was, by invoking Germany's education and employment system as a model.

We had just returned from our own tour of Germany's schools and factories and can report that the German model does in fact provide a viable and popular pathway to get young people employed immediately after high school in good paying jobs. Jobs that can turn into careers. We found a culture where "vocational training" is not a taboo word, where companies invest billions of dollars annually in training young people who have completed tenth grade for apprenticeships in healthcare, information technology, and above all, manufacturing. The results are hard to dispute: Germany's high school drop-out rate is around 7 percent (compared to the U.S.' dismal 23 percent.) And while 8 percent of Germany's youth population (ages 16-24) is unemployed, our youth unemployment is at 16 percent (for African-American youth, it's a bleaker 38 percent, according to the Department of Labor.) Germany's highly-skilled workforce helps it create high-end products that the world is hungry for. As a result, Germany exports more products than anywhere else except China, and the country has been a lone beacon of good news while the rest of Europe has been laid low by the financial crisis.

The young people we met at Tognum, a diesel engine maker headquartered in southern Germany, were juniors and seniors in high school. They spend half their time at the factory floor and half their time at a technical school, where they study mechanical electronics, electrical engineering and technical design. The students get a taste of the workforce, a bona fide skill and a bit of pocket money. By the end of the apprenticeship, the company can hire these apprentices, who have been carefully trained to Tognum's specifications, or the apprentices can go elsewhere, armed with a certificate in an employable skill such as Industrial Mechanics. We asked these young people, again and again, "Wouldn't you rather be studying literature, or history or reading the Classics like your friends who are going to University?" And the response, over and over again, was a friendly smile and an emphatic "No." It turns out many young people can't wait to get out from behind a desk, and actually design something with their hands, whether it's a blueprint or an engine part. And in Germany, the more 'practically minded' kids are rewarded with good paying jobs. Tognum's assembly line, for example, was filled with young people earning $47,000 - $60,000 a year, including benefits like healthcare and pensions. And many students told us they planned to go to University later, once they had a better sense of what they wanted to study.

It couldn't be more different in the United States, where as Harvard professor Robert Schwartz says, "the cliché in the U.S. is 'Vocational education is good... for other people's children.'" Schwartz says we need to think of vocational education, not as a kind of 'dumping grounds' for young people, but as a skill-set that everyone is going to need going forward. If you want to be an electrical engineer, why not study electrical circuits? If you want to be an architect, you better add a computer-assisted drawing class to your course load. But the reality today is that America's high schools are all about college, college, college. And the road to college hinges on GPA, class rank and standardized test scores, none of which is helped if you step off that path to take something that may be more practical and employable.

The biggest take away from the trip is this: U.S. employers can't complain about a 'skills gap' if they're not willing to step up and educate and train their workers in the way that German companies like BMW, Siemens and Tognum do. And high school and college educators can no longer teach a curriculum that may not have much immediate applicability to the needs of the workforce. I'm not urging people not to go to college, my days at Sam Houston State University at Huntsville, TX were joyful, productive and have added immeasurability to my life.

But nowadays that kind of rite of passage comes with a new steep price tag. As my father told me, "You trust me, but you still always cut the cards." College is a marvelous and useful thing, but students today may want to think seriously about having a backup still to that piece of sheep skin.

Dan Rather is anchor and managing editor of AXS TV's Dan Rather Reports (Tuesdays, 8 p.m. ET on AXS TV). For more, visit Dan Rather Reports, Dan Rather's Official website, Dan Rather Reports on Facebook and Dan Rather Reports on Twitter. This episode is also available on iTunes.