Lester C. Thurow

While American firms often talk as if they are investing vast amounts in their work forces, they in fact invest less in the skills of their workers than either Japanese or German firms. The investment they do make tends to be highly focused on professional and managerial employees. And the limited investments that are made in average workers are narrowly focused on the specific skills necessary to do the next job, rather than on the basic background skills that make it possible to absorb new technologies.

In Germany, there is an extensive training system for the non-college-bound. These young people enter a dual school-industry apprenticeship system at age 15 or 16. At the end of three years, after passing written and practical examinations, they become journeymen with known skill levels. After another three years of work and additional courses in business management, law, and technology, a journeyman can become a master – a credential necessary to open one’s own business.

In contrast, America keeps all students on the “college track,” even though it knows that only a quarter of them will successfully complete that track. It ignores the fact that skilled blue-collar workers will earn more on average than college-educated workers. The mirage of equal opportunity is used to defeat real opportunity. No one is willing to plan for, or invest in, the skills of the non-college-bound. Relative to the sizes of the two populations, for every $1 per person in taxpayers’ money spent on training the non-college-bound, $55 are spent subsidizing those going to college – a system that is neither fair nor efficient.

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