Work of the Future Today

December 2018
Postdoctoral Associate
Higher Education and the Work of the Future
student in library on laptop

Insights from Germany and the United States

As the nature of work is changing at an unprecedented pace—accelerated by the emergence of new technologies—opportunities and challenges arise for individuals and for society. As decision-makers consider ways to help ensure equality of opportunity, social inclusion, and shared prosperity, education is often presented as the answer. Yet, expert recommendations are all but clear-cut. On one hand, there is an increased need to improve technological and data literacy to meet a “skills gap” and empower future workers to collaborate closely with robots and AI. On the other hand, some argue for a more versatile, balanced curriculum and for a greater emphasis on social and emotional skills, creativity, and the “human connection.”

Through my research on work-based programs in the US and Europe, i.e. hybrid forms of higher education, that combine the acquisition of theoretical knowledge and its practical implementation in a workplace, I have engaged with these different viewpoints and conducted a comparative analysis of Germany’s Duales Studium (dual study programs) and co-op programs in the United States. Among my findings are that as both countries are characterized by high degrees of educational diversity due to their federal structure, there is not one “typical” program in either country. Rather, a number of common features and differences can be identified.

The first concerns the collaboration between higher education institutions, companies, and the public sector, which in Germany is significantly more regulated and structured than in the US. Moreover, I observe variation in completion rates, time needed to find subsequent employment, position types and responsibilities upon graduation, as well as entry-level salary. Perhaps most striking is the different status that workplace-based education and experiential learning still have in both countries. In Germany, dual study programs are run by highly regarded institutions (mainly universities of applied sciences, but also universities of cooperative education and private and state higher education institutions), whose students seem to appreciate the added value of gaining two qualifications (an academic degree and a vocational qualification) in a relatively short time frame (of three to four years), while also building experience with a team and obtaining professional skills. They receive a salary/training allowance while studying, do not have to pay tuition fees, and are able to establish corporate contacts—which frequently lead to subsequent employment—independent of their socio-economic background. As a result, dual study programs have seen remarkable growth rates in Germany, not just in terms of graduates, but also in the number of participating companies and higher education institutions (HEI), and in the diversity and quantity of subjects offered.

In the US, by contrast, hybrid forms of higher education have been significantly slower at gaining acceptance among students, employers, and the wider public. Despite—or perhaps partly due to—their successful implementation in community colleges, co-op programs with a strong experiential learning component are often still considered inferior to traditional studies. While this may—at least in part—be a consequence of the strong reputation that the US university system has built for itself, it appears that more practical factors may account for this outcome, too. Co-op programs are usually far less integrated both in terms of content and time spent at the HEI vs. time spent at the workplace, and they do not provide the same financial incentives that characterize the German dual study programs. Moreover, it must be noted that even though students do not pay tuition for the time they spend in companies, they are still responsible for obtaining necessary funding to attend the HEI in the first place. Co-ops therefore offer only a slightly more accessible pathway towards obtaining a higher education than attending a traditional university, which students in the US tend to finance through a mix of scholarships, family assistance, and loans.

While these findings may provide useful insights for anyone who is interested in designing effective education systems, they can also shed further light on the differences in terms of skill formation between so-called coordinated market economies and liberal market economies. Whether this distinction may hold in the long run and against the background of the dynamics of rapid technological innovations remains to be seen and constitutes an interesting direction for future research.