A delegation of Pinellas and Pasco school, government and business leaders is headed to Germany on Saturday to gather ideas on how to better prepare students for high-wage, high-skills jobs.
The group of 12 leaders will spend a week in Munich and the surrounding area, touring major industries such as Siemens and BMW, and visiting vocational schools and training facilities.
They hope to see how Germany's apprenticeship program connects companies with students, and how they might replicate the concept in Florida.
"Germany has such a good best practice on how to accomplish getting kids high-wage jobs when they graduate from high school, and getting businesses the workers they need," said Pasco County Commissioner Kathryn Starkey, who helped organize the mission and is making the trip. Each person is responsible for paying their own way.
The Bauer Foundation, an Odessa-based subsidiary of the German Bauer Group, has implemented several pieces of Germany's dual vocational training model in the past few years. It has brought select students from engineering programs at East Lake and River Ridge high schools to its headquarters to shadow each department and work on projects over a six week period.
Those who are interested can participate in an on-the-job training program at Bauer for their junior and senior years, preparing them for work at the company or similar ones in the future.
Spokesman Bryan Kamm said he hoped the visit to Germany would spark more interest in expanding the concept in the Tampa Bay area and throughout Florida.
"Until you see it firsthand, you can't really understand how the system works, what industry's role is as well as the school system and the government," Kamm said. "If we don't have a model to go by and see, one that is already working and producing the skill sets the industry needs, we are starting off on the wrong leg."
Pinellas School Board member Robin Wikle called the trip an "incredible opportunity" to discover better ways to guide all students to graduation and beyond.
"We still have students dropping out because they don't feel like the theory is able to be put into practice," Wikle said. "We have to make it relevant for them, so that we have 100 percent who want to finish high school."
The Pinellas Education Foundation is picking up the tab for Wikle and superintendent Mike Grego to make the trip. The other participants, including Pasco superintendent Kurt Browning and School Board member Alison Crumbley, are paying their own way — about $3,000 for travel and lodging.
Crumbley observed that Germany has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the industrialized world, and that it has few problems placing qualified candidates into top jobs. If the school districts can adopt even a piece of that, in conjunction with area businesses, it is worth the time to check out, she said.
She remained cautious, though, in that some parts of the German model — whether legal, political or cultural — might not be easily copied in the United States. Experts told Businessweek that the private companies would have to be willing to accept the government regulation of their training systems, for instance, and that society must abandon the stigma that vocational training is a fallback position for students who cannot handle college.
"We're not going there to copy, because we have our own wants and desires here," Crumbley said. "But I think you have to expand your horizons. … You can't all work separately and expect something to fly. We've been doing too much of that."
Over time, the group wants to involve more businesses into the system, so it can provide a variety of options to students that they might pursue after graduation.
Participants recognized this effort could take time. Starkey led a similar trip to Germany in 2008, while she was a Pasco School Board member, and she's still after results.
Peter Buczynsky, president of Odessa-based PharmaWorks and a big supporter of the initiative, said he believed the timing is right with local and state leadership aligned and more intent on promoting career and college readiness than in past years.
"I feel like it's now or never," Buczynsky said.
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at [email protected], (813) 909-4614 or on Twitter @jeffsolochek. For more education news visit the Gradebook at tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.