At last, unemployment is easing. But the latest low rate—hovering below 6 percent–obscures a deeper, longer-term problem: “skills mismatches” in the labor force, which will only worsen in years to come. According to the most recent figures, 9.3 million Americans are unemployed, but 4.8 million jobs stand empty because employers can’t find people to fill them. With new technology transforming work across a range of sectors, more and more businesses are struggling to find workers with the skills to man new machines and manage new processes.

One solution has enchanted employers, educators, and policymakers on both sides of the aisle: European-style apprenticeship. The Obama administration is about to announce $100 million worth of apprenticeship grants—and wants to spend another $6 billion over the next four years. Meanwhile, lawmakers as different as Democratic Senator Cory Booker and Republican Senator Marco Rubio have expressed interest in the idea.

Americans should proceed with caution.

I’ve just come back from Germany, where I visited some half dozen apprenticeship programs at brand-name companies like Daimler, Siemens, and Bosch, and the metaphor I came away with is a native tree—flourishing, productive, highly adapted to its local climate zone, but unlikely to take root or grow in a climate as different as the America's. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t adapt the German model. But it’s not going to be quick or easy.

The U.S. has its own tradition of apprenticeship going back many years. But like most kinds of vocational education, it fell out of fashion in recent decades—a victim of our obsession with college and concern to avoid anything that resembles tracking. Today in America, fewer than 5 percent of young people train as apprentices, the overwhelming majority in the construction trades. In Germany, the number is closer to 60 percent—in fields as diverse as advanced manufacturing, IT, banking, and hospitality. And in Europe, what’s often called “dual training” is a highly respected career path.

"Dual training" captures the idea at the heart of every apprenticeship: Trainees split their days between classroom instruction at a vocational school and on-the-job time at a company. The theory they learn in class is reinforced by the practice at work. They also learn work habits and responsibility and, if all goes well, absorb the culture of the company. Trainees are paid for their time, including in class. The arrangement lasts for two to four years, depending on the sector. And both employer and employee generally hope it will lead to a permanent job—for employers, apprentices are a crucial talent pool.

The first thing you notice about German apprenticeships: The employer and the employee still respect practical work. German firms don’t view dual training as something for struggling students or at-risk youth. “This has nothing to do with corporate social responsibility,” an HR manager at Deutsche Bank told the group I was with, organized by an offshoot of the Goethe Institute. “I do this because I need talent.” So too at Bosch.

“Building world-class diesel parts is hard,” the executive in charge of the program explained. “We’re very careful about who we hire. We’re looking for quality.” As for trainees, they learn quickly enough: A mistake on the factory floor is a million-dollar mistake—and they grow up fast, learning not just skills but responsibility. No wonder the apprenticeships are popular: At the John Deere plant in Mannheim, 3,100 young people apply each year for 60 slots, at Deutsche Bank in Frankfurt, it’s 22,000 applicants for 425 places.

The second thing you notice: Both employers and employees want more from an apprenticeship than short-term training. Our group heard the same thing in plant after plant: We’re teaching more than skills. “In the future, there will be robots to turn the screws,” one educator told us. “We don’t need workers for that. What we need are people who can solve problems”—skilled, thoughtful, self-reliant employees who understand the company’s goals and methods and can improvise when things go wrong or when they see an opportunity to make something work better.

A final virtue of the German system: its surprising flexibility. Skeptical Americans worry that the European model requires tracking, and it’s true, German children choose at age 10 among an academic high school, a vocational track, or something in between. But it turns out there’s a lot of opportunity for trainees to switch tracks later on. They can go back to school to specialize further or earn a master craftsman’s certificate or train as a trainer in the company’s apprenticeship program—and many do. What education reformers call “lifelong learning” is still a distant dream for most Americans. In Germany, it’s a reality.

So where’s the rub? Why is it likely to be hard for Americans to transplant the German model? It starts with cost. Each German company has a different way of calculating the bill, but the figures range from $25,000 per apprentice to more than $80,000. It’s likely to be more expensive still in the U.S., where firms will have to build programs from scratch, pay school tuition (in Germany, the state pays), and in many cases funnel money into local high schools and community colleges to transform them into effective training partners.

The apprenticeship program at the Siemens USA plant in Charlotte, North Carolina reportedly spends some $170,000 per apprentice. And even the most generous policy proposals on the table in Washington would cover only a fraction of these costs. In the U.S. as in Germany, the lion’s share will fall to business.

This issue came up at nearly every stop on the tour, we Americans asking about what costs mean for ROI and the Germans telling us to look beyond ROI to the longer-term benefits, for the company and society. Ultimately, of course, they’re right. But it’s hard to imagine many American firms, generally focused on short-term financial gain, building the kind of in-house training centers we saw at every German plant: immaculate, state-the-art facilities, complete with robots, the latest computerized machining tools, and a raft of uniformed instructors overseeing busy trainees.

Another challenge, if anything a more difficult one, has to do with the centralization of the German system and the role the state plays in regulating what happens in private companies. What makes dual training work, every manager told us, are the standardized occupational profiles, or curricula, developed by the federal government in collaboration with employers, educators, and union representatives. Every young machinist training anywhere in Germany learns the same skills in the same order on the same timetable as every other machinist. This is good for apprentices: It guarantees high-quality programs where trainees learn more than one company’s methods, making it possible for those who wish to switch jobs later on. But it’s hard to imagine this level of state control or business-labor cooperation in the U.S.

The final obstacle is arguably the biggest: American attitudes toward practical skills and what Germans still unabashedly call “blue-collar” work. Attitudes are changing in Germany too. Globalization has brought the bachelor’s degree, unknown until recently, and with it, a new, broader interest in attending college. But there’s little sign that the growth in BAs is undermining apprenticeships. And in both settings, university and dual training, it’s agreed that the purpose of education is to prepare people for jobs. In America, we’re not sure. We’re committed to the idea of education that prepares people for life and suspicious of anything that smacks of training.

Many German educators we met on the tour had advice for Americans interested in importing apprenticeship. “You don’t have to take the whole bouquet,” one vocational education teacher told us. “Make sure the first experiments succeed,” someone else advised. But ultimately, no German expert is likely to have the answer for the United States. The adaptations and adjustments are going to have to come from within, and they aren’t as simple as it sometimes seemed in the heady discussions on our trip. Americans aren’t simply going to jettison old attitudes and decide, for example, that long-term gains, however broad, should trump short-term ROI.

This doesn’t mean the system can’t be adapted if we start with our eyes open and a full understanding of the differences between the two countries. What’s likely to drive programs, in the U.S. as in Germany, is the need for talent. “German companies want to train,” one trade association executive told us, “because they know the schools can’t do it. Especially in today’s tech economy, vocational schools alone can’t prepare the workers we need.” The American HR managers in our group nodded grimly. This was something they understood from experience. It wasn’t what they wanted to hear, but no one could deny it—or what it implies for the future of training.


This post appears courtesy of New America's Weekly Wonk magazine.