Walking through German cities in early October, Dr. Romules Durant was struck by their vibrancy and the Mom and Pop stores that dotted the boulevards. They reminded him of another time, another place.

“The culture of Germany reminded me of the East Side in the 1970s, 1980s, even the 1990s,” said Dr. Durant, CEO/Superintendent of Toledo Public Schools.

“We had Hungarians, Germans, Poles – they all brought their cultures with them,” Dr. Durant remembered. “And there were Mom and Pop bakeries and stores selling little candies. Now [almost] the only one that survives is Tony Packo’s.”

And the owners of these small businesses gave back to their communities, serving as coaches and volunteers in their churches, always the first to sponsor a team or help out at a fund-raiser. It was when their children and then their children’s children dropped out of high school and couldn’t find good-paying factory jobs that the weakening of Toledo’s strong middle class happened, Dr. Durant believes.

He is hoping to reverse that trend – and give Toledo a vibrant middle class again – by adopting ideas he learned of during his week-long visit to Germany. The difference between the two countries at this point, Dr. Durant believes, is that Germany still has a strong middle class, fueled by an apprenticeship system in which major corporations pour millions of dollars into the training of their young workers.

Dr. Durant studied this apprenticeship structure during his week visiting major corporations in such cities as Munich and Stuttgart as part of a program sponsored by the Washington D.C.-based TransAtlantic Outreach Program. Founded in 2002, the program aims to promote education about Germany, to encourage intercultural dialogue and to provide the opportunity for North American educators to experience Germany in person.

The group met with the top executives at companies either based in Germany or with a strong presence there: Siemens, Daimler, Deutsch Bank, Basch and John Deere.

“Among people ages 16 to 24, only 7 percent of them are unemployed,” Dr. Durant says. “Everyone is contributing to the local economy. They can pay for themselves; choice becomes an option.”

In Germany, students as young as 10 commit to a vocation and from then on, their education and apprenticeship choices are geared to learning that industry from the ground up.

“We went to the classrooms where they learn theory, then to the practice labs where they work on mock machines and then to the factories themselves,” Dr. Durant said of his trip.

At each stop, he was amazed to learn of the amount of money the corporations put into training programs. He said Siemens spends $100 million annually, while Daimler spends $4 million, Deutsch Bank spends $2 million, Basch spends $3 million and John Deere spends $3.8 million.

“The economy is truly driven by external workplace investment,” Dr. Durant says.

He said some of his fellow travelers had a hard time believing the philosophy behind such investment.

“Industry is truly invested in supporting the local economy rather than [its] own return on investment,” Dr. Durant said.

The Siemens executives said they lose about 30 percent of their young workers to competitors, but they don’t worry their ‘return on investment’ has been minimized.

“They said, ‘we’ll get them back in 5 or 10 years down the road. And we know that when we get them back, they’ll be more experienced,’” Dr. Durant remembers them saying.

Dr. Durant said he talked to one young worker at his hotel who said that her first year was spent learning the culinary operation, the next year was in room service and the third year was in sales.

“Then they become certified in their industry. But they’ve learned how to troubleshoot in any department,” the superintendent said.

What he saw in Germany has inspired Dr. Durant to continue his efforts to provide more apprenticeship opportunities for Toledo Public Schools students. He also wants to push harder to develop or expand on partnerships with such schools as Owens Community College, Terra Community College, Northwestern Community College, the University of Toledo and Bowling Green State University.

Siemens, for example, already has a partnership with Owens, according to Dr. Durant, and a John Deere partnership with Owens would be a natural fit with the diesel classes that TPS started this year and could mean TPS starting even more auto tech programs.

“We’re committed to make those partnerships happen so all of our students are college and career ready,” Dr. Durant said.

The key, he added, “is that every year you’re blending learning with real work experience so these students are prepared for the workforce.”

While he admits that having 10-year-olds choose a vocation might be a little extreme, career exploration at a young age is one of the reasons that TPS is pushing the use of Naviance among its students. Naviance is a software program that provides students with college planning and career assessment tools, allowing students to start gathering information about a variety of careers. They can learn about the skill sets that are needed, the average grade point averages and the salary ranges for those careers.

“I never want to tell people what they can’t do. But I will say to them, ‘here’s the reality,’” Dr. Durant said.

Before he left for Germany, Dr. Durant predicted that what he would learn would be beneficial to efforts already started by TPS to work with Penta Career Center, the Cherry Street Mission, higher educational institutions and industry leaders to align education and career training directly to job openings.
After his trip, Dr. Durant is even more committed to such partnerships that will benefit TPS students.

“We’re going to make this happen,” Dr. Durant said.