How U.S. Can Think Big With Jobs

For landscapers and equipment manufacturers trying to find trained technicians, Germany offers a great example of how to do it right.

The German Engineering Federation, VDMA, last month brought in more than 10,000 teens to participate in Bauma 2013 and a program they called Think Big. There, the teens got an up-close look at the kind of careers they might undertake if they liked what they saw.

Bauma officials also dedicated an entire exhibition hall to Think Big. Here the teens could play with simulators, computer animations, engine diagnostic tools and video games designed to show them what it’s like to work with today’s high-tech construction equipment.

The VDMA’s goals in putting together the Think Big program was not to directly recruit kids into the industry, but to change perceptions.

Would a program like Think Big work in the United States? Yes, but the details, execution and support would need to change to fit our unique environment. The VDMA is a big organization serving a relatively small country. It represents almost all the technical and industrial interests of Germany. Construction machinery and building technology firms are just two of the 39 categories it serves. It has more than 3,000 German and international member companies.

Another difference that makes vocational education a harder sell in the United States is the German public has a more positive opinion of the trades than most Americans. Half of all German high school students are routed into vocational education programs, starting at age 16. Technical proficiency is a matter of national pride and economic strength.

In the United States, the education establishment puts most of it’s eggs in the college basket. Our vocational and technical schools are starved for funding. Fewer than one percent of our high school students go into vocational apprenticeships. In terms of the work-readiness of high-school graduates, the United States ranks dead last out of 29 countries studied.

These are big problems, and the construction trades and equipment industry are just two of the business sectors that suffer from them. The question is, how do we turn this around?

A first step toward replicating the kind of success Germany has with vocational training would be for the construction associations to come together with other industrial and manufacturing interests and form an umbrella group with the kind of clout VDMA has. The Association of Equipment Manufacturers, Associated General Contractors, Associated Equipment Distributors and dozens of other industry associations do good work, but on the national scene they are, separately, very small fish in a big pond, all but invisible in state and national politics.

Second, our manufacturers, large construction companies and related associations ought to think seriously about putting together a traveling exhibit of some kind that could generate the kind of fun and appeal that Think Big created for German kids at Bauma.

It is curious that the Germans are using an American expression, “Think Big” to motivate their future technicians. We’re certainly not thinking big enough in this country, and it’s time that changed.

To read more about how Germany “thinks big,” click here.

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