BERLIN, Germany — When Hermann Oplanic failed to get into college three years ago, he was devastated.
Like a growing number of young people, the 25-year-old Berliner saw a university education as an essential pre-requisite for joining his country’s modern middle class.
But all was not lost. Thanks to an apprenticeship program that’s the envy of American manufacturers, he now believes circumstances forced him into making the right choice for his future.
“A friend of mine completed his studies first and then took an apprenticeship,” says Oplanic, a blond machinist dressed in blue overalls and a polo shirt who works for a company that produces gear-grinding equipment in the capital. “Now he thinks it would have been better to get some practical experience first.”
Run by companies mostly at their own expense, Germany's apprenticeship program is widely credited with producing the most highly skilled, hardest-working labor force in the world. But even as US President Barack Obama unveils a $100-million program aimed at emulating it, the German scheme is struggling to attract young people.
Officially integrated into the education system in 1969, Germany’s apprentice placements range from banking to butcher shops, administered by hundreds of chambers of commerce that set training standards and monitor how trainees are treated.
During apprenticeships that typically last three to three-and-a-half years, trainees spend four days a week working and one day at an academic “Berufschule,” or “career school,” earning salaries or hourly wages that match their level of experience.
For employers, the system provides a wellspring of employees trained to use the latest technologies, while state-run technical schools typically operate using factory and laboratory equipment as much as two decades out of date.
Being taught and evaluated by experienced workers who are possible future peers and colleagues helps instill a craftman's sense of pride that's harder to cultivate at community colleges and trade schools, say German executives like Martin Kapp, head of the German Machine Tool Builders' Assocation (VDW).
“Trained people will always find work in Germany,” says Kapp, who also owns the Kapp Group, which makes grinding machines and precision tools for the automobile, aerospace, and power generation industries. The company, where almost all top executives got their start as apprentices, employs around 50 apprentices at its headquarters in the central town of Coburg.
Although apprentice programs aren't unknown in the United States, they've traditionally remained the purview of the building trades and other union-dominated industries, and have mostly been eclipsed by community colleges and technical schools that students pay to attend. Only around 375,000 Americans were enrolled in apprenticeship programs at the beginning of this year, compared with 1.4 million in much smaller Germany.
But even as the Obama administration announces that its own drive to expand on-the-job training has resulted in the creation of 10,000 new apprenticeship programs in the US since January, trouble is brewing in the manufacturers' paradise.
A record low number of young Germans signed on as apprentices in 2013, due to demographic and social changes that mean ever fewer young people are joining the workforce as more are opting for university degrees, according to a new report from the Federal Statistics Office.
Even though Germany faces a looming shortage of skilled workers in key occupations, the government has until recently been trying to push more students into higher education, according to one of Germany's workers' guilds.
Oplanic, the machinist apprentice, says three quarters of his friends are studying at universities.
“The German system is very good,” he says. “But they want someone who can build a rocket for a job cleaning toilets.”
Where policymakers once promoted higher education in a bid to improve social mobility, the apprenticeship system is now credited with helping Germany achieve the EU's lowest rate of youth unemployment during the economic crisis, Kapp says.
“There was a time when everybody just looked at the statistics and saw that Germany had a lower number of people going to university,” he says.
That blinkered view ignored strengths of the German system that have been built up over decades and may prove more difficult than expected for the US to duplicate, Kapp says.
At his company's US manufacturing facility in Colorado, he tried again and again to set up an apprenticeship program based on the German model. But he found that American workers weren't willing to make long-term commitments to training programs — at least with machinists in hot demand. Moreover, American engineering graduates had no interest in getting their hands dirty on the shop floor — an essential component of Germany's reputation for excellence.
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A similar effort to build an apprenticeship system in the UK has run into trouble because Britain lacks the management infrastructure of powerful trade bodies that control standards in Germany. Many of the new programs are too short to be much use and the range of programs is too diverse for the qualifications to have value, the Economist recently complained.
Whatever the benefits for society at large, the German model means that companies, not the government or the students themselves, absorb most of the cost of job training.
Kapp says his total investment easily adds up to more than $1 million over five years. That’s something businesses in other countries may not be willing to sacrifice.