Editor’s Note: This week, Secretary Perez travels to Germany and the United Kingdom, to learn from workers, employers and government officials about their effective models for skills training and workforce development. Throughout the week, he’ll share his personal reflections and observations.

Oct. 28, Day 2: Wolfsburg, Germany

Wolfsburg, Germany is a rarity in Europe – a city with its roots in the 20th century rather than the millennia of history that preceded it. That’s because it’s home to Volkswagen AG’s headquarters and one of the largest automobile manufacturing plants in the world. It emerged and grew as Volkswagen did. It’s the ultimate company town.

Learning and Earning

Today I visited VW’s headquarters to learn about its apprenticeship model, which many economists praise as one of the most innovative of its kind. The program is designed to train and develop apprentices to keep pace with rapidly advancing technology; they receive formal qualifications through extensive product training while working full time.  I heard from these apprentices, as well as the people who created and maintain the program, to find out what we can do in the United States to promote high-quality apprenticeships and make them available to more Americans.

I asked one apprentice what he likes the most about his job, and he told me it’s that he can learn something new every day and continue to grow his career. Learning while earning – that’s what apprenticeship is all about.

I finished the tour at their production plant, known as the “Sector 16 Werkforum.” As they do in the auto plants I’ve visited back home, the cutting-edge technology and sophisticated robotics astonish me. This isn’t your grandfather’s manufacturing. Through apprenticeship, Germany is able to give their people the highly specialized skills required to keep their businesses competitive and growing.

“Build me as you will build your next car”

Along the tour, one of the employees said something that strikes me as right on the money: “Build me as you will build your next car.” That sleek, well-engineered Jetta you see in the showroom or that you’re backing out of your driveway? It’s a good product because Volkswagen invests in the people designing it. VW “builds” its people up, giving them the tools to contribute to the company’s growth and success.

A “Berufsfamilie”

Dr. Horst Neumann, my tour guide today and a member of VW’s Board of Management for Human Resources and Organization, taught me a new word: “Berufsfamilie.”

It translates roughly to “work family” or “professional family.” It’s an animating principle behind the German labor-management relations approach, which requires businesses to establish “works councils” that include worker and management representatives. These councils work collaboratively to address working conditions and set policies on human resources and other matters. As with any family, works councils don’t guarantee harmony, but they provide a forum for working through differences. Works councils are an innovative way to ensure worker voice, which is critical to a strong economy based on shared prosperity. We should look for ways to import this model to the U.S.

Not Just the What, but the How

VW’s training and worker representation policies are examples of a company that articulates its values as much as its products in everything it does. I told my hosts that young people in America are helping to bring about a culture shift where we value not only what a company makes, but how it makes it.

On to Berlin and then the UK. I’ll have another diary entry in the next day or so.

 

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