Progress more important than perfection

Published 9:29 pm Tuesday, June 13, 2017

I want to follow up on Sketches No. 1565 concerning our trip to Germany. In that Sketches I shared a lot about the process of the trip but also a taste of the substance. Process is important, but substance is more important.

We learned much about people, places, institutions and relationships. We also learned profound lessons. The lessons are what I want to share with you in this Sketches.

The first lesson involves what can happen in education when business, labor and government work together. The German education system provides a widespread apprentice program.  Beginning in the equivalent of our ninth grade, most students participate in the apprentice programs for three years. They attend classes part time and work part time. This is a uniquely productive approach.

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Let’s explore this system a little more before we deal with the benefits. Students are required to work part time learning a trade. There are hundreds of trades from which to choose. Businesses are required to pay students a set sum each month, which is less than the German minimum wage. Students are required to work a set schedule. Businesses are required to teach a trade, not just work the students. The arrangement is embodied in a written contract signed by each student and each business.

Benefits are considerable for students. They learn a trade, they learn how to work and they earn money. The students create concrete opportunities for fulltime work once they graduate from high school. In a way, students are truly preparing for life in the latter years of high school.

The benefits are considerable for businesses. They develop a truly skilled workforce. They have a source of workers at a reduced salary rate during the apprentice program. They develop relationships that produce a pool of future employees who are personally known to them. They develop a pool of employees who have the exact skills needed and an understanding of the culture of that particular business.

The benefits are considerable for the government. It can afford to provide students a free education all the way through university. The country has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the world. It also has one of the lowest unemployment rates for youth in the world. As a result, the entire society is more stable with less crime and other ills exacerbated by unemployment. Labor benefits from the arrangement as well. As the students are immersed in the business culture, they learn the labor culture as well.

All these benefits require business, labor and government to work together. Government not only enacts laws to facilitate the arrangement but has chambers of industry and commerce to ensure all entities work together. Business and labor work together with government to get the best legislation and to ensure high quality in the apprenticeship program and in the workforce.  I could go further, but I’ve utilized too much space on this one lesson.

The second lesson involves the relationship between business and labor. The government ensures the right of business to organize and the right of labor to organize. It is in the German Constitution. Then there are worker councils within each business. This facilitates business and labor working cooperatively to produce one of the best workforces in the world. Also, German businesses are among the most productive in the world. Both business and labor have various organizations to protect their interests. However, the overall interest of German society is protected and strengthened by this inclusive approach.

The third lesson involves society in general. The Germans have a very stable society. This derives in great part because of the relationships among government, business and labor. It also derives from a uniquely educated populace. When basic segments of the society work together, good things happen for all. Cooperative efforts produce much for the country.

The fourth lesson involves the way evolving circumstances change institutions and relationships. In Germany, more and more young people want to go to university rather than pursue apprenticeship programs. This is happening in spite of the fact that the jobs they get with a university degree will pay less. It is an issue of status. The trends not only impact the apprenticeship program but also the long-term supply of skilled workers. In addition, organized labor seems to be getting the short end of the stick. There are always challenges even when things are going well.

The fifth lesson teaches us how much German corporations value the relationship between government, business and labor in Germany. However, they do not value and forge these same such relationships in the United States. Is it the German corporations, or is it the U.S. culture?

I realize that no society is perfect. Neither is any segment of a society perfect. That is certainly true of Germany.

However, the issue is not perfection but progress. We certainly learned a lot that could help education, business, labor and government progress in the United States of America.