By Jim Cabot

I just got back from an all too brief vacation on an island in the middle of Penobscot Bay in Maine. It’s a beautiful place that my family has been visiting for over a hundred years. I have many cousins who have made the transition from “summer folk” to “islanders” and I have learned a lot about island life and politics. Several years ago, the island community was torn apart by a debate over the future of the island’s school system. For many years the approach to education leaned towards a liberal arts curriculum designed to set students on a pathway to college and higher paying jobs. The problem was that the island offered very few of these kinds of jobs; students were leaving to start their careers elsewhere and local businesses were struggling to find qualified employees with much needed vocational skills. The debate pitted neighbor against neighbor and struck to the heart of this close knit island community. Several years and many community meetings later the island has reached a compromise where students who are interested in learning skills that will enable them to pursue careers on the island now have more options to develop their vocational expertise. From farming to boat building or inn-keeping, businesses have flourished and students today have more “on island” career options.

The reason I recall this debate is because I heard a story on NPR a few days ago that described an innovative vocational training program being run by Volkswagen and the state of Tennessee. In a nutshell the training program is designed for high school graduates looking for an alternative to a college education. It’s a three year program that supplies a small stipend and trains students on the latest advanced robotic manufacturing, 20% classroom and 80% hands-on. They earn an associate’s degree from Chattanooga State Community College and a DIHK certification from the German American Chamber of Commerce, allowing them to work at auto plants in Germany. Most importantly they got a job at the Volkswagen plant starting at $22/hour. Not a bad gig considering I know several college graduates earning minimum wage while they find their first “real” job.

In our business, we are consistently looking for ways to help our clients develop public-private partnerships that bring substantial benefits to the community and the company. It might be a wind developer that provides tax revenues and local jobs or a film company employing hundreds of people and driving the creation of many ancillary support businesses. The VW/Tennessee partnership is a great example of the proverbial win/win where the state helps to maintain critical manufacturing jobs, VW gets the high quality trained employees they need and students are provided with an entirely new career pathway.

It’s no secret that Germany’s economy has been a model of success in the EU and their innovative apprenticeship program, where more than half of graduating high school students pursue vocational training, is a key part to this achievement. As manufacturing is poised for a rebound in the US, Germany could serve as a model on how to develop a qualified workforce. For sure, this is the real driver behind the development of the VW/Tennessee partnership but a part of me wonders just a little bit if someone from Nashville or Wolfsburg ever spent any time in Penobscot Bay.