Germany's Apprenticeship Wunder: Highlighted on NPR but Nothing New to Vernon Briggs

By Jerry Kammer and Jerry Kammer on April 4, 2012

On NPR's "Morning Edition" today, reporter Eric Westervelt told a story about Germany's apprenticeship program, which every year trains 1.5 million young people for a spectrum of jobs — from aircraft mechanics, to bakers, carpenters, and violin-makers. It is a remarkably successful national strategy of the sort that has long been urged by emeritus Cornell professor of labor economics Vernon Briggs.

Briggs, a member of the CIS board, has warned of an imbalance between disjointed and underfunded manpower training programs in the United States and immigration policies that continue to accept large numbers of poorly educated and unskilled immigrants through issuance of green cards based on family connections rather than skill, amnesties, and failure to enforce immigration laws. He says the newcomers not only compete for jobs with Americans on the bottom economic rungs, but also widen the gap between the economy's need for trained workers and the skills of the available workforce.

For decades, Briggs has been particularly concerned about the lack of systematic training for young minority workers. In their 1967 book The Negro and Apprenticeship, he and F. Ray Marshall (who became Labor Secretary in the Carter administration) criticized the failure of industry to recruit and train young black men for the skilled trades.

Briggs has called for immigration policies along the lines suggested in today's NPR story by German professor Rolf von Luede, an economic sociologist at the University of Hamburg. Said von Luede, "Migration has to be orientated at people who are qualified or who may be qualified in the future by the educational system of Germany."

In his 1992 book Mass Immigration and the National Interest, Briggs made the case that immigration policy is inevitably a labor policy because of the tremendous effects it has — for good or ill — on the skill level of the American workforce. He said said the "primary objective" of immigration policy should be "to admit persons who can fill job vacancies for which qualified citizens and resident aliens are unavailable."

Briggs's 2004 book Still an Open Door blasted Congress for adopting immigration policies intended to appease interest groups rather than serve the national interest. In a passage that German workforce policy makers would regard as evidence of astonishing negligence among their American counterparts, Briggs wrote:

What the nation faces is a shortage of qualified labor. The appropriate policy would be to address the mounting mismatch between citizens and the emerging skills and education requirements of the workplace. In other words, an expanded national human-resource development policy for citizen workers is required. In this context, there is certainly no need for an immigration policy that annually encourages or tolerates the mass entry of immigrants with only minimal regard to their human capital attribute, which places additional remedial burdens on an already underfunded and inadequate education and training system.

In the paperback edition of Mass Immigration and the National Interest Briggs included this thematic quotation from the 1994 report of the U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform, directed by Barbara Jordan: "It is both a right and a responsibility of a democratic society to manage immigration so that it serves the national interest."

In Germany, at least, those who make the laws agree. In the United States, says Briggs, lawmakers have other priorities.