Beautiful Dresden

,Following the tour of the VW plant, we had the opportunity for a very quick visit to Dresden. This ancient city was destroyed over two nights of massive bombing in mid-February, 1945, as the end of Word War II approached. Historians agree it had little military or industrial significance and debate rages about how many died in the firestorm created by the bombing with estimates ranging from 35,000 to 135,000.



Dresden in the Soviet-occupied East Germany was rebuilt to its original dimensions to a remarkable degree. This is how the ruins in central Dresden above look today, with older building blocks, blackened by fire, replaced in their original positions, supplemented by newer whiter blocks.

Zwinger Palace, built 1710-1719

The VW Transparent Factory

Literally across the street from the BSZ Bau und Technik school stands an impressive Volkswagen factory. More a museum and showpiece than a factory, the VW Transparent Factory has a daily production of 72 e-Golf automobiles a day. The care-Golf, or Eagle, is an all-electric version of VW Gulph.

Roundtable members received a fascinating 75-minute tour of the facility from a guide who identified himself only as Helmut.

Noel Schmidt, Susan Enfield, & Joell Hanson visit Volkswagen Transparent Factory

Although not permitted to photograph production within the plant, we were able to take some photo’s outside the plant floor, where we caught a glimpse of automobiles moving along the assembly line at a barely perceptible pace while mechanics and engineers worked on putting the cars together. Imagine a dirty, greasy factory of the past and put it out of your head. The factory of the future is spotless.

Helmut pointed us to a concept one-seater that was never produced.

(We were introduced to SEDRIC, a driverless Uber-like automobile that will arrive on demand and deliver passengers to the destination of their choosing. This “Level 5” automobile (completely driverless) will be in production within the next 10 years, we were told.

The Eagle is produced on an assembly line in which a oval moving floor nearly a mile in circumference accommodates the electrical power-train accompanied by an overhead suspension system that transports the chassis around before “marriage” with the power-train.

We were told it takes five hours to put together one of these automobiles. Essentially each is built by hand with the assistance of several precision robots. To minimize ergonomic strain on the mechanics, each moves from station to station every 12 minutes.

The Rise of the Robots. It is an extremely impressive sight to watch robots at work on these cars. One emerges from the floor to perform the “marriage” by effortless screwing the two parts together with several dozen industrial size screws. Another attaches wheels with a series of human-like motions eerily similar to the dinosaurs in “Jurassic Park.” A third installs heavy dashboards, lifting that uncomfortable task from human hands. And a fourth scrupulously measures angles, size, and fit with several hundred high-speed cameras when attaching front and rear windows.

This futuristic plan employs about 25 apprentices. We did not see them in operation. But this “transparent” plant puts on display not only the future of the automobile but the future of heavy manufacturing writ large. Henry Ford who invented the assembly line would be impressed with its 21st-century manifestation.

This futuristic plan employs about 25 apprentices. We were told that four to six of them work on the assembly line. Their final test consists of taking the parts of an automobile and putting it together — then dismantling it so that their successors can repeat the tests.

We did not see the apprentices in operation. But this “transparent” plant puts on display not only the future of the automobile but the future of heavy manufacturing writ large. Henry Ford who invented the assembly line would be impressed with its 21st-century manifestation.

A School Specializing in Construction Trades

Tuesday found the Roundtable on the road to Dresden for another informative day. First up Berufliches Schulzentrum Bau und Technik School (BSZ Bau und Technik) a vocational school specializing in construction trades. Here we had an opportunity to see what the theory described in Berlin looked like on the groundDresden, a city in the state of Saxony, was in East Germany following World War II. It had been destroyed in 1945 in several savage nights of carpet bombing by British and American bombers. The school was the first school opened in Dresden following World War II and remains an example of East German architecture, complete with Soviet-style images of adults shepherding students into the future. The Roundtable posed with its host Assistant Principal Steffen Palowsky at the front steps of the school.

Palowsky, concerned about his facility in English, asked his charming daughter Analise to translate for him. The two of them described a very complex system. Students arrive at the school after ten years of schooling. Its teaching staff of 59, along with three social workers, serve 1,050 students. Students typically spend a couple of weeks with an employer followed by a couple of weeks in school.

Assistant Principal Palowsky displays brochure designed and printed by students

The school is an “umbrella” school, housing several different programs within its walls. The first, the Fachoberschule aims to prepare students for entry into applied science universities. Its curriculum emphasizes German, another language, mathematics, applied physics, chemistry, information technology, ethics, and gym.  The second, Berufschule offers a dual VET system for students entering after ten years of school to develop skills in brickworking, steelworking, and working with concrete. Students work for four weeks, before spending two weeks in school. The regional IHK is responsible for the test that provides a certificate to these students.

The third, the Fachschule is aimed at students ranging in age from 25 to 50 and helps develop building site foremen, draftsmen, and people capable of starting their own companies. Finally, the Druk und Medientechnik is yet another dual VET system aimed at developing talents in art, printing, photography, and media design.

Analise & Steffen Palowsky

The system is not simply complex, Palowsky is responsible for helping lead a school with difficult scheduling challenges in which some students are in the school every week, some are in school every other week, and some are in school only once every six weeks! To an American educator, it sounds like a scheduling nightmare.

The school aims to produce a variety of well-trained employees, for the most part working within the Dual VET system described earlier at Siemens and the Ministry of Education. It produces construction workers, steel workers, specialists in working with concrete, foremen and people equipped to start their own small businesses, as well as opticians, lens grinders, and media specialists in art, photography, printing, and media design.

Specialized Programs

Pawlosky moved quickly from presentation to leading the Roundtable to the heart of his school — specialized classrooms offering instruction in bricklaying, wall building, photography, optical testing and lens grinding, and, his pride and joy, a large, new four-color printing press.

Bricklaying and Wall-Building Classroom
Photography Studio
Vision screening classroom
Classroom to grind eyeglass lenses
Four-Color Printing Press

Finally, we stumbled on some lively graphic arts students eating their lunch and playing cards. They were quite happy to discuss their program, the challenges of living on 600 to 800 euros a month while moving between school and the employer who sponsored their apprenticeships and their hopes for work in the future.

Graphic arts students describe their programs

German Federal Ministry of Education

Arriving at the Federal Ministry of Education and Research after a dazzling morning at Siemens, Roundtable members worried that the educators had a tough act to follow. Kornelia Haugg, Director General of General Education, Vocational Training, and Lifelong Learning, along with Dr. Kristin Schmal of the public affairs unit of the ministry, quickly put that worry to rest.

Dr. Kristen Schmal of the Ministry of Education and Research.

Schmal explained that the ministry had been established in 1955 as the Ministry for Atomic Affairs, and renamed in 1962. It worries about education, science, the arts, education research, which is a significant part of its budget, and technology and technological innovation.

With a staff of approximately 1,100 it boasts of a continually rising budget in recent years, amounting to 18 billlion euros in 2019. Germany has a Federal system, with the ministry providing guidance on most issues, but policy is defined by 16 “lander”– essentially states. The single policy exception is vocational education where the ministry has a significant role.

Headed by Minister Anja Karliczek, a member of the Bundestag, the ministry maintains two offfices — one in Bonn, the capital of West Germany during the Cold War, and one in Berlin. About two-thirds of the staff are in Bonn, with a continual discussion within the government about the wisdom, cost and feasibility of consolidating both offices in Berlin.

The VET System Writ Large

Kornelia Haugg (below) presented the Roundtable with a tour de force description of the vocational education system. She described a vocational education technical (VET) system that was part of a dual path to employment. One path leads through the general education system of 13 years of schooling into higher education as a route to the labor market. The second route has two paths — traditional vocational education schools into work or the “Dual VET” which is comprised of a complex ecosystem involving schools, employers, and government to provide occupational qualifications in 326 recognized occupations.

Haugg reported that nearly 52% of young people enter the workforce through the dual VET program, with 90% of those entering VET graduating from the program. Currently 1.32 million trainees and apprentices are participating and 5.2% of all employees in the country are trainees. The program provides essentially guarantees of employment security — about 96% of VET graduates find work.


Kornelia Haugg

Confirming much of what we had heard at Siemens, Haugg reported that nearly half a million employers (426,375 to be precise) participate in the VET program (out of a total of 1.7 million companies). They offer training to 500,000 potential employees annually. Unfortunately, she said, despite what appears to American observers to be a massive scale of VET participation, only 20% of companies participate. Very small companies find it difficult to be part of the program.

The VET program offers two coordinated learning opportunities, with 70% of VET training offered on site at the company and the remaining 30% in a vocational school that provides theory as well as instruction in languages and what we in the United States would consider social studies – lessons on how democracy is supposed to work.

The Devil is in the Details

The starting point for VET is a contract entered into by the apprentice and the company providing training. The contract spells out what is expected of the company and the apprentice, over the life of the two- or three-year contract. Both the apprentice and the company can back out of the contract if they wish and initially perhaps 25% of trainees do so, although many re-enroll. Perhaps 15% of trainees eventually drop out.

Around the age of 13, reported Haugg, schools start to expose students to various occupations to help the students gauge their interest in different lines of work. Across the system, about 60% of VET participants are male and 40% female.

A final exam for the apprentice is organized by IHK’s (akin to U.S. Chambers of Commerce), employing a board made up of teachers, employers, and employees. The board developing the exam, which is modified annually, does not include instructors who trained the apprentice. Some 79 IHKs dot Germany.

IHKs in Germany

Successful negotiation of the exam entitles the apprentice to a certificate in the occupation of choice, a highly valuable credential that is recognized throughout the nation and by the government.

The IHKs are one of the lynchpins of VET, setting up and overseeing apprenticeship programs for small- and medium-sized firms. They are, in effect, licensed by the government and handed some powers of the government, namely responsibility for developing the tests, registration of contracts, and a specific charge to support vocational education. Companies are required to be members of their regional IHK. Across Germany, 79 IHKs exist, with the Munich IHK, which the Roundtable will visit, being the largest, representing 350,000 companies.

Incentives to Participate

Cui bono? asked Cicero, famous Roman rhetorician. Who benefits? In Germany, all actors in the ecosystem are thought to benefit. The Berlin IHK describes a “triple win.” The state benefits with low unemployment compared to the rest of the European Union. Companies enjoy the benefit of highly trained employees. And students clearly have access to well-paid employment. Nationally, it is thought that a government investment of €3 billion (about $3.37 billion in May 2019) generated matching funds of €23 billion (about $26 billion) annually.


Kornelia Haugg,

Director-General Haugg provided a more detailed set of responses:

Young people are attracted to VET by the opportunity to earn money (as apprentices and future employees), gain a qualification, attend a high-quality vocational training program; and work in a skilled occupation at something practical and hands-on.

For the employer a key motivator is access to competent (and in fact vetted) potential employees. They simultaneously obtain the workforce they need while reducing on-boarding expenses for new employees. They find themselves with a loyal, productive, skilled, and innovative workforce.

A key employer motivation, Haugg stressed, is a sense of social responsibility to the larger community. This is a sense driven not by the government, but by a commitment in Germany going back centuries to the guilds of the Middle Ages that craftsmen had an obligation to the community and to their craft to pass on their skills.

Government, finally, noted Haugg, is attracted by the potential of VET to provide the skilled workforce essential to a modern economy, while promoting economic growth, and offering citizens the opportunity to achieve their full potential.

Emerging Challenges

During her presentation to the superintendents, director General Haugg went into considerable detail discussing challenges faced by the VET system (see graphic below).

For trainees, a particular challenge is finding a Dual VET training opportunity, as the number of unplaced applicants has increased and the number of companies providing training has dropped 24%. There are also increasing demands in the workforce for additional skills, including foreign languages – and the reverse, the growing number of immigrant applicants without German. The challenge of converting informally acquired competence, perhaps on the job, into certifiable competence is also receiving increasing attention.

Current challenges for Dual VET programs

For employers, confirming something we heard at Siemens, a surprising challenge is finding young people for Dual VET opportunities. Vacant training places increased from 19,800 in 2010 to 49,000 in 2017. Part of the challenge here is finding competent trainees with the skills, knowledge, and attitudes essential to success (“trainability”). The large number of immigrants since 2015 also places burdents on employers, who are simultaneously hoping to increase the number of slots for apprentice trainees dealing with the challenges of disability.

Finally, the government is worried about anticipated shortages of skilled workers, while demographic change (immigrants and lower birth rates among German nations) undermines the supply of qualified potential apprentices. To our surprise we heard again something we had heard at Siemens: more and more young people are choosing to head to universities rather than approaching the world of work through the Dual VET system.

Questioned about the increased interest in university entrance, Haugg characterized it as a challenge, not a crisis. She explained that Germany had reduced the time students needed to remain in school from 13 years to 12. That immediately produced a short-term problem of doubling the number of graduates in a single year. Simultaneously, the Organization for Economic Collaboration and Development (OECD) criticized Germany for having too few students enrolling in university programs, while parents in skilled occupations hoped for a better and more prestigious lifetime of work for their children. As the spasm of increased graduates smooths out, Haugg expects the imbalance to correct itself.

Schmal and Haugg, center, with Roundtable in front of AI display

Siemens – Mechatronics Training

Lauren von Steuben (center below)described an impressive program to provide a national and internationally recognized certification in “mechatronics.” Once again the concept of  “handlungkompetenz” made an appearance. Mechatronics is a combination of electrical, mechanical, and information technology systems.

Lauren von Steuben describes mechaatronics to James Harvey (l) and Chris Cross (r).

The program aims to provide Siemens certificates at Level 1- assistant, typically a high school graduate; Level 2 – Associate, typically the equivalent of a community college graduate; and Level 3 – Engineer, often associated with a bachelor’s degree.

Siemens employs a systems approach, hands-on learning experiences, and systems-focused trouble-shooting. The mechatronics training provides an international industry skills certification, one that is comprehensive and not oriented around Siemens’ needs, and it is consistent with high standards of achievement worldwide. Very significantly, said von Steuben, it is delivered together with partners in the education community – school systems or colleges and universities worldwide.

Siemens is actively looking for school partners who want to work with this major German corporation as part of a secondary school diploma or community college studies. The company functions on a “training the trainer” approach, offering educational partners two weeks of training in Georgia (or Nuremberg) and then working with the partners to define practical first steps to get a program leading to a Siemens certificate up and running.