WASHINGTON - Remaking the U.S. workforce to make it more competitive in the 21st century will take an attitude shift by companies, students and their parents, participants at a seminar on advanced worker training said this week.
The panel and the audience, at a Jan. 29 symposium sponsored by the German Embassy, said the object is to raise the standing of non-academic vocations, including those for which U.S. unions train workers.
Germany now undertakes such training, with unions there playing a leading role with companies in constructing and implementing training programs for workers in both technical fields and in trades. And "trades" there have a high social status and broader definition than they have in the U.S. They're also viewed as first-choice careers.
Germany can help the U.S. shift its emphasis by exporting its worker training methods via U.S. subsidiaries of German firms, the speakers said. But the shift will need more than that example, they admitted.
U.S. unions can help reverse the low perception of such non-academic careers, the panelists agreed when AFL-CIO workforce policy specialist Dan Marschall brought the issue up. But they said such a shift also requires an attitude change by firms.
In contrast to Germany, where both law and custom force firms to respect and work with unions and even unorganized workers, U.S. worker-management relations are bitter. Cooperation is minimal, even when union contracts mandate it. Firms invest most retraining money in skills of supervisors and executives, not on-the-line workers.
And the U.S. education system, speakers said, is geared towards 4-year college degrees in non-vocational areas that often don't lead to jobs. That's what parents and students want and that's what U.S. government policy and spending encourages, too.
Apprenticeship programs are the exception to the rule, but they're underfunded by the federal government, added American University economist Herbert Lerman.
As a result, speakers said, U.S. firms often find themselves short of highly trained skilled workers, even as the nation's jobless rate remains stuck at 7.8 percent.
"At the AFL-CIO, we are always interested in advanced job training" because it helps workers acquire better skills which in turn make them more attractive and higher paid, Marschall told reporters after the seminar. The German embassy's labor attaché and the U.S. federation already meet regularly to discuss innovative training, he added. "This could be the basis for extensive discussions" if there is an attitude shift.
Photo: German Audi R8 V10 M 93/Flickr