Christina Chadwick fell in love with robotics as a little girl. Now at 18, the Florida native is well on her way to a career in mechanical engineering, and she thanks Germany in part for that. Chadwick is the recent winner of the German American Chamber of Commerce, Inc. (GACC) “Trainee of the Year” award. The award honors the work of a student undergoing a German-style vocational training program in the United States. These programs provide young students with hands-on experience at a company while they attend school. Chadwick works at the Florida office of BAUER Foundation Corp., the U.S. subsidiary of the German construction and machinery company BAUER Group, based in Schrobenhausen, Germany.
BAUER began offering a six-week summer engineering internship to students as part of a relatively new partnership with Chadwick's high school. The program's aim is to introduce students to the kind of work available at BAUER and to also give them some real world experience. Chadwick was one of the first students to take part. During the summer after her second year of high school, she spent time in each of the company's departments, learning how the business worked from design to construction. She decided to stay in the shop where she could work with the machinery. “We used each machine to work on different projects,” Chadwick says. After a few weeks, “I had a little more experience so I could just go into the weld shop and make a product. I also helped in the mechanics and parts shops.” After finishing her six-week internship, BAUER offered Chadwick a part-time paid internship, and she's stayed there since. “I can't remember how much they paid me starting out, but at 16, it seemed like a lot.”
Going to school while embarking on a paid internship at 16 may sound unusual to many in the United States, but it's common in Germany. Almost 60 percent of all German school graduates follow this apprentice-style model. Germany's vocational education system pairs classroom studies with on-the-job learning. Students, usually between the ages of 16 and 19, apply for a specific apprenticeship at a company. For two to three years, they spend a few days at a work site, getting paid a small stipend from their employer, and one to two days in a classroom learning theory. If the students pass both a mid-term and final exam, they graduate with a certificate that signifies they know all the basics to begin working professionally in their fields. The certificates are standardized throughout Germany, well respected and often a necessary requirement for jobs.
Chadwick's grateful for her time at BAUER. “I would definitely say that this experience has widened my view on how focused you need to be in school for your career,” says Chadwick. “Working in this internship, I see how you can apply school to work.” She says her technical skills have improved and also soft skills, like communication among coworkers. “Going to meetings and speaking in front of people feels more natural now.”
These apprenticeships also help companies who want to target and train students for available positions. That's one reason why German employers are playing a big role in the export of this education model, especially in the United States, where more than 3,500 German companies have headquarters or branch offices. “Whenever we do a survey among the German companies in the United States, they tell us that they have problems finding workers with the right skills to fill vacant positions,” says Nicola Michels, Director of Communications at GACC in New York. Many companies have begun building training facilities and partnering with local high schools, as in Chadwick's case, and technical and community colleges. Partnerships between large automakers like BMW, Mercedes, and Volkswagen and local schools are turning out students ready to begin work after graduation. Other examples include Stihl in Virginia Beach, and Siemens, which U.S. President Barack Obama singled out in two recent State of the Union addresses for the company's close collaboration with a North Carolina community college.
Some countries are eying the German vocational model as a way to cope with growing levels of youth unemployment. Germany's youth unemployment level of less than 8 percent is seen as a result, in part, of the country's dual education system which focuses on matching students to the jobs that are available. The German Chambers of Commerce in Portugal and Mexico have opened their own Berufsschule, or training schools, to help institute the vocational model. Spain, Italy, and China are among the other countries experimenting with this system.
Chadwick heads this fall to the Florida Institute of Technology where she will study mechanical engineering. She feels well prepared to continue on her career path because of her training at BAUER and thinks more students should have this kind of experience. “I think it would be great for us to adopt this system (in the United States). In Germany, the companies are in tune with the students. They understand they need the students because they are future employees. And students at a young age are already training. They know what they want to do. They train well and have jobs as soon as they are out of school.”
The GACC plans to honor a “Trainer of the Year” this December to bring more awareness to vocational training opportunities in the United States. Nicola Michels from GACC says for years vocational training had a negative association. “People thought if you didn't go to college you would have no opportunities. You would just do the dirty work,” she says. “We're showing this kind of work is anything but dirty.”