German Giant Says Skills Gap Results from Education Weaknesses

June 22, 2011
Jessica DuLong profile photo
Jessica DuLong

On Monday, the Financial Times ran a story about the skills gap, provocatively titled “German Giant Says US Workers Lack Skills.” Eric Spiegel, chief executive in the US for Siemens, the German engineering group, said the problem exposed weaknesses in education and training in the US, explaining that his company has struggled to find the workers it needed for its expansion plans, even amid an unemployment rate of 9.1 percent.

The troubles Siemans faces are common among many employers, particularly in manufacturing. The story continues:

A recent survey from Manpower, the employment agency, found that 52 percent of leading US companies reported difficulties in recruiting essential staff, up from 14 percent in 2010.

In manufacturing in particular there is evidence of a mismatch between workforce skills and available jobs: while employment has fallen since January 2009, the number of available job openings has risen from 98,000 to 230,000.

Mr Spiegel’s concerns about skills are shared by many other US business leaders, and were reflected this month in the first recommendations from President Barack Obama’s advisory council on jobs and competitiveness.

I’m always interested in comparisons that reveal how different countries educate their workforces. Certainly the U.S. has much to learn from Germany, Great Britain, and other nations about how best to prepare young people for productive employment. (For more on this, read Ilana Garon’s Dissent Magazine piece Tunnel Vision: How a “College for All” Philosophy Leaves Everyone Behind.)

But I found this line in the Financial Times story particularly telling:

As a result of the shortage of workers with the right skills, Siemans has had to “to invest in education and training to meet its staffing needs, including apprenticeship programmes of the kind it uses in Germany.”

Um… yeah. *Of course* companies need to play a larger role in training workers. Who better to impart marketable skills than employers hungry to hire on people with those particular qualifications? For an example of competing manufacturers teaming up to do exactly that, read my piece “Moving from Help Wanted to Help Found: Attracting the next wave of skilled workers.” Note the publication date: August 2008. That’s nearly three years ago, people. Have we made any progress on this at all?

At least the press is beginning to get the message. It’s fascinating to watch the media finally clue into the “industrial tsunami,” which has been bearing down on this country for a generation—the very same generation that has been raised on the notion that making things and physical labor are dumb, dirty, and in decline. As John Ratzenberger explains:

With a dearth of wrench-savvy workers, there aren’t enough people to repair the nation’s crumbling bridges, buildings and water systems, let alone operate the gears of America’s mighty military machinery.

Will ringing more alarm bells bring about actual change? That remains to be seen.