CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. — German manufacturers are trying to bring worker-friendly policies, which have helped make Germany into an export powerhouse and could help the U.S. solve its youth joblessness problem, to their U.S. operations, but so far few American businesses have seized on the tips they are offering.
Volkswagen, Germany’s largest automaker and the second-largest car manufacturer worldwide behind Toyota, just started an innovative program to train workers with the exacting and advanced skills needed to make the Passats assembled in the company’s massive, state-of-the-art plant here, eliminating a problem with scarce skilled labor that many American manufacturers say plagues their factories and keeps them from expanding.
But despite the success experienced by VW, BMW and other German businesses with such apprenticeship programs both here and abroad, U.S. businesses have done little to replicate the worker-friendly programs. A few American businesses, like Caterpillar, are setting up programs to train and funnel idled workers into their factories, but for the most part, the U.S. business strategy has been to complain a lot and lobby for aid from Washington and state legislatures to “do something” about the estimated 600,000 to 3 million skilled manufacturing and technology positions that currently go begging.
“Among businesses, the issue of finding properly skilled labor is their top challenge. There seems to be a gap between high school and college” that is not being filled in the U.S., said Hermann Nehls, a counselor for labor at the German Embassy. While millions of workers cannot find jobs because they lack the skills, employers cannot find the skilled workers that they need to run their shops and factories. Meanwhile, political leaders talk about creating more jobs and reviving the economy but rarely seem to find solutions that work.
Germany has found that “economic success largely depends on the skills and expertise of our citizens” and has cultivated a system that ensures a steady flow of trained workers to fill the needs of German industry, Mr. Nehls said. “Volkswagen is trying to raise this kind of apprenticeship in the U.S.”
Stefanie Jehlitschka, vice president of the German American Chamber of Commerce, said that while German businesses like VW are relative newcomers to the U.S., they quickly realized that state-of-the-art training programs for their staff were rare or nonexistent in most areas. In Germany, businesses work with the government, universities and labor unions to provide worker training in a systematic way, but in the U.S. businesses must fund any training programs themselves, and the political and community network for supporting the programs is patchy, she said.
“The biggest challenge we see is the private and public sectors are not talking in the U.S.,” she said. “Companies have never gotten involved in the educational system, and there are few or no collaborations.”
Tennessee’s political leaders got involved helping VW connect with local community colleges that could help train young people to work in its highly automated factory while workers gained on-the-job experience. The payoff: VW is bringing its cutting-edge German manufacturing culture to Tennessee, including a devotion to protecting the environment as well as cultivating good worker relations.
Rep. Charles J. “Chuck” Fleischmann, Tennessee Republican, whose district includes the VW plant, said he’s found other members of Congress take a great interest in what VW is doing here as it has enabled the Chattanooga area to create good-paying middle-class jobs while they remain scarce elsewhere around the nation.
“There is a wow factor. It’s the envy of the country,” he said. “This is a model for the country, a model for the world. This is a model that can make America great in manufacturing again.”
Pushing the envelope
VW is pushing the envelope more than most other German businesses in attempting to bring worker-friendly policies to the U.S., and it has not always met with political praise. The company works effectively with unions at home and in dozens of countries around the world, but it learned the hard way earlier this year that any attempt to allow its U.S. workers to organize into a union that could formally provide advice and represent workers’ interests in the company’s in-house governing council will run into a buzz saw of opposition in a traditional right-to-work state hostile to unions.
In a closely watched vote, U.S. business and conservative groups allied with Republican political leaders in Tennessee joined forces to lobby successfully against a union-organizing effort at VW’s plant here in February. Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam even threatened to withdraw state tax subsidies from the company if the union vote succeeded. While VW had the most at stake in the election, it was officially neutral and did not fight the United Auto Workers organizing effort. Executives privately seemed open and even eager to work with a union-backed workers’ council similar to the ones in their German plants.
The harsh battle over the election to create the first unionized plant in a Southern right-to-work state was defeated on a 712-626 vote. It left jangled nerves throughout the community, and VW is still fumbling for ways to more formally bring its workers into its decision-making process so as to make better products that can compete in the tough global marketplace for cars.
“VW wanted the union. They still want the union,” although VW executives vehemently deny they took sides, said Edward Kline, a Chattanooga airport employee with friends who work at the VW plant. He feels the workers got cheated out of the better wages and benefits that come with unionization. With cars churned out of the plant selling for $31,000 apiece, the company could well afford to pay the higher wages seen in unionized plants, he said.