Germans getting ahead by getting along

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Treating workers well has paid dividends for the company, the count said, particularly in the past couple of decades when unions agreed to restrain the growth of wages so Germany could catch up with the global competition and improve productivity. That resulted in a stronger economy for business and workers alike, he said.

“Management and unions try to find a common solution, to get reasonable results,” he said, noting that his own factories are unionized. “To our amazement, people complain less. Common sense is prevailing.”

Hermann Noack, owner of the Foundry, a century-old firm in Berlin that molds massive sculptures on behalf of artists and governments, refused to lay off any of his 33 workers in 2009, even though he did not get a single new commission that year.

“It’s difficult to throw somebody out and find new people,” he said, noting that his employees are artists and craftsmen with exacting skills that cannot be duplicated easily. The company is best known for its sculptures created on commission for the English sculptor Henry Moore.

German businessmen say that looking out for employees is common sense and good business. Most have profited from a system of apprenticeship set up through collaboration among management, labor and government to train workers and funnel them into factories that require specialized labor.

Wilhelm Seibel, who runs Mono, a small knife factory in the Rhine Valley with 30 workers, said he recruits his employees from among the graduates of a rigorous three-year apprenticeship in his industry. During the apprenticeship, the workers go to school for three days a week and work a couple of days in the factory for low wages.

After three years, the apprentices are required to take a demanding test. Mr. Seibel said he also requires his candidates to individually design and craft a top-end knife to show their knowledge and skill.

“They must do a masterpiece” to get hired, he said.

Apprenticeship system

Other businessmen also credit the apprenticeship system with supplying the skilled workers they need in their factories.

Deutsche WorkStation, a Dresden firm that designs custom interiors for yachts, offices and hotels, has about 25 apprentices on its staff of 250 and recruits its craftsmen out of apprenticeship programs.

The company particularly needs skillful cabinetmakers, who can earn $4,000 to $6,000 a month crafting one-of-a-kind pieces for the company’s wealthy clients.

“Our most critical expenses are labor. We do everything piece by piece,” said chief executive Fritz Straub. “About 75 percent of what we do is by hand.”

German businesses are responsible for educating their workers and teaching them necessary skills under the apprenticeship system.

In the U.S., businesses pass off that responsibility to workers, who often don’t acquire the skills they need to get the best jobs. Filling the educational vacuum in the U.S. is a hodgepodge of government programs and community colleges, which have evolved to become the main providers of specialized education for trades.

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