At first blush, it sounds like a good idea: have business partner with universities and colleges to create a vocational curriculum that provides graduates good-paying jobs in today’s growing industries.

There’s just one major hitch: The primary role of education, particularly higher education, is to develop citizens with a wide variety of skills needed to live a full and vibrant life in a flourishing 21-century democracy — not to custom-tailor graduates to fit vacant slots in businesses desperate to hire trained workers.

That’s why the recent initiative launched by business groups to create an unobstructed pipeline of skilled workers from major public and private universities is likely to produce only lukewarm results.

While it’s true that college graduates earn more money over their lifetimes than those without a degree, the problem is that far too many who start college drop out and end up with large amounts of student loan debt with not much chance of paying it off. Many are forced into bankruptcy.

In the 2011-2012 school year, the Pell Grants, the Department of Education’s largest aid program to help students from a low- and moderate-income background finance a college degree, cost taxpayers a whopping $34.5 billion with dismal results. While federal statistics are sketchy, they suggest that a majority of Pell recipients dropped out before completing their sophomore year.

No wonder. It’s clear that many high school graduates don’t have the aptitude to go on to college and would rather go directly into the workforce and start careers. The paradox is that nearly a million attractive jobs are going begging, while millions of Americans remain unemployed or seriously underemployed.

The remedy is not to have schools create new and easier courses to accommodate students who aren’t legitimate college prospects, but to create more vocational training opportunities along the lines that have been standard in Germany for decades. Forced to rebuild its industrial might from the rubble of World War II, the Germans long have placed a high value on vocational education.

In Germany, the educational system begins to differentiate between those students best suited for higher education and those who may fare better in vocational training at an early age, often in the eighth grade or at the start of their freshman year in high school.

More than two-thirds of the German workforce has received vocational training from technical schools, trade guilds and company training programs. In 2012 alone, German companies hired and trained some 600,000 workers.

The system obviously is working. In October, despite a slumping economy, Germany’s youth unemployment was 7.7 percent compared to 12.7 percent for the United States.

In Germany, vocational ed students learn both in the classroom and on the job — usually attending vocational schools two days and spending three days a week as apprentices in a chosen vocation. Slightly more than 50 percent of German students choose this career path.

American companies who want to start such programs in their own factories won’t have to travel abroad. A number of U.S. factories owned by German firms already have installed training systems that could help fill America’s crucial need for skilled workers.

Volkswagen’s sprawling auto factory in Chattanooga, Tennessee, is a good example. The company runs its Volkswagen Academy in a large building that also houses its Passat assembly line. Aspiring workers who complete the three-year program earn a starting salary of $22 an hour and are certified to work at German auto plants anywhere in the world.

It’s time to end the stigma long-attached to vocational education by adapting the German approach throughout the U.S. Most Americans don’t need a university diploma, but all need a well-paying career.

Whitt Flora, an independent journalist, is a former chief congressional correspondent for Aviation & Science Technology Magazine and a former White House correspondent for the Columbus Dispatch. This essay was distributed by Tribune News Service.

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