May 5, 2013

What we can learn from Europe

The middle and working classes in this country have had a difficult last few years. All but the top 5 percent have lost wealth. Some have been forced to delay retirement. Others in retirement no longer have the income and security that they once thought. And, still others grapple with persistent unemployment and underemployment.

Yet, we have been lucky compared to some nations.

Europe is often a microcosm of the best and worst an economic union has to offer. It remains divided, with some nations prospering while others flounder. Yet, somehow, it must knit itself together as an imperfect economic union.

Let’s begin with one of its strengths. Germany has forged a compact between free enterprise and its working class. The coalition promises social and economic responsibility by its corporations and inclusion of its workers. There, management and unions have figured out how to work together in the interest of the whole. They have learned to cooperate to provide long-term productivity and sustainability through a partnership.

A variety of German institutions assume responsibility for the training of their workforce. Universities educate a smaller share of their population than we do, but more of the young people who begin college in Germany finish it. Their institutions of higher education produce a good mix of doctors, nurses, lawyers, social workers, administrators and other professional white-collar and green-collar staff. And, they don’t leave as many highly trained individuals unemployed or underemployed as we do.

Companies and unions also cooperate to train those who see value and dignity in technical professions like electricians, heavy-equipment operators, machinists, welders, plumbers and pipefitters. They help sponsor the education of the next generation of blue-collar workers by providing internships that allow young people to get real-world experience in their trade. The companies then hire these workers who have received two or more years of training and practical experience beyond high school.

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