By the time you read this, I will be in Germany on a week-long study tour as part of the Cities in Transition Initiative, a project of the German Marshall Fund. The program aims to identify approaches that Europe’s traditionally industrial cities have taken to address economic dislocation, and explore how these might be used or adapted by us back at home. I’m looking forward to the program and to comparing notes with participating colleagues from Cleveland, Youngstown, Detroit and Flint, Mich.
There is much that the Pittsburgh region shares with Germany. Two hundred years after immigrants from German states began populating what was then Allegheny City, theirs is still the most common ancestry of our residents. Germany leads foreign direct investment in the region with 70 companies accounting for 172 establishments. These employ more than 10,000 people and include names such as Bayer, Flabeg, LANXESS, Siemens and Sycor. Germany is also an important market for some 30 regional companies, which operate more than 60 facilities there across a variety of industries.
Like Pittsburgh, the cities we’ll be visiting have rich industrial roots and – by drawing on R&D, innovation and entrepreneurship – have managed to create new sectors while modernizing the manufacturing that was downsized by global economic forces. Dortmund, along the Ruhr River in west-central Germany, was long a center of coal mining and steel making, but has leveraged university and other R&D to grow its technology, bio-medicine and advanced manufacturing sectors. Stuttgart, in the southwest, is often called the birthplace of the auto industry, and remains home to Daimler and Porsche, as well as the European headquarters of Hewlett-Packard and IBM.
The similarities end, unfortunately for us, at Germany’s broad success in connecting young talent with technical training and skills that land them well-compensated, in-demand jobs in today’s industries. In the U.S. generally and the Pittsburgh region in particular, the response to decline of manufacturing in the 1980s was principally to turn an entire new generation away from such work.
How can we change the conversation and reinforce the notion that an individual cannot only be proud of working with his or her hands, but earn salaries and benefits far greater than many other jobs not requiring a four-year degree? How do we communicate the message that to be a welder is a just as important as – and often more attainable than – being an engineer?
The Pittsburgh region has thousands of good jobs and careers that individuals can land starting with a high school diploma and certifications, often obtained in a matter of months at a technical school or community college. Once on the job, workers can, over time, obtain further credentials – certifications, an associate’s degree, even a bachelor’s degree – that increase their skills and earning potential.
I am particularly keen to learn how German educators, business leaders and parents talk about technical careers and associated educational options with young people. In our own region, we know from a recent study of energy occupations that we already have more demand for technical talent than we can supply, and that the future for talent with all sorts of post-secondary credentials is extremely bright.
What can our counterparts in Germany teach us about how to convince the generation of Pittsburghers hunting for jobs now – and those coming up behind them – that having too many options and pathways can be just as problematic as having too few? Today, too many students and their parents see an “all or nothing” proposition in post-secondary education: a bachelor’s degree is a must, even if one’s particular career goal doesn’t require one. We know the great learning a four-year degree can bring, and that it is – and will remain – needed for many positions that require such a degree. But national data show that only 42 percent of students who start a four-year program actually finish (and often in six years), and too many students pursue degrees that are not in demand. We need to be sure that young people are making as well-informed choices as possible.
I’ll let you know what I find out. Stay tuned.