Learning Not for School But for Life

Impressions from the Transatlantic Core Group


14 Dec 2016 | Franziska von Kempis | Europe and Its Neighbors

Learning not for a specific job, but for a career! What can education and training look like today, in Germany and in the United States? During a workshop held at the U.S. East Coast, Franziska von Kempis, a new member of the Transatlantic Core Group, learned many new things, including about Bible study and the presidential elections.

Tegel Airport, check-in for New York City with Delta Airlines. While the lady at the counter is checking my passport and reminding me to remove old tags from my suitcase, a man standing in line behind me gets all worked up: “Let’s hope I don’t have to fly back here next week with this passport and an asshole for president!” Rude words, but his companion laughs. It is November 3, 2016, a few days before the U.S. elections, and already the line at the airport in Berlin tells me that the atmosphere is tense.

I am on my way to Charlotte, North Carolina. The Transatlantic Core Group (TCG) has invited me to a workshop on “Vocational Education.” What I first thought to be a spam mail turned out to be a workshop invitation by a newly founded transatlantic network. As far as I can tell, it is about people from different fields and sectors (government, media, business, even the arts and culture) working together in innovative ways to address shared challenges and find new, transatlantic answers to social issues.

I have to confess that I need to google the term “vocational education.” I am currently working on a project that, together with German influencers (YouTubers, Facebookers, Instagrammers – that is, young people with large social media followings), produces “serious content” (educational content) videos and campaigns for their young viewers. I have never heard of “vocational education,” but as soon as I learn that it is about educating and training young people, I immediately and enthusiastically agree to participate. The pressure to do an Abitur, young people overwhelmed by their university studies – these are issues that I know only too well from our own projects.

So it is all the more exciting that this network, launched in 2015 by the BMW Foundation Herbert Quandt together with German and American partners, wants to address this very topic. But why in Charlotte, North Carolina? And what exactly are we supposed to do? I get an idea of what to expect on the first day. During the first session, Simon Lange, Jessica Kulitz, and Nina Bianchi introduce the TCG network – and I realize only now that it is a continually growing network. Every year, new members are added, and the 30-strong workshop at the community college in Charlotte, of which I am also a participant, has been organized by several TCG members themselves, including Nina, Simon, and Jessica.

Jessica, for example, is currently building a company in Charlotte – and thus has first-hand knowledge of the topic “education and labor market.” It is news to me that Americans are not only very curious about the German dual education system, but actually like to adopt it. But it is only when Stefanie Jehlitschka, Vice President at the German American Chambers of Commerce and a TCG member, shows us a video about the disadvantages of a “college for everyone” movement that I make a connection that works for me: We also have this problem in Germany. As someone who comes from a family of university graduates and has gone to university herself, I had no idea how much this influences the job training market.

Lots of speakers, lots of impressions: I do not understand everything right away, and I keep thinking about the phrase “vocational education.” So it is naturally the first question I ask everyone during our breaks. Another thing I did not know is that a community college such as the one in Charlotte also trains truck drivers. What I remember above all is a sentence that we hear again and again: “Do not just train people for a specific job, train people for a career.” This is something I can relate to.

Before lunch, we get to know Carla, a young Bosch trainee. Wow, I am impressed! Carla is 22 and has almost finished her traineeship, she spent three months in Germany on an exchange program and is able to explain in perfectly clear language that she always wanted to become an engineer but thought the training program was a sensible and exciting first step. Listening to her almost makes me want to apply to the program myself – peer-to-peer communication at its best!

My head is spinning: training, vocational training, greater focus on practical application, work exchange between the United States and Germany. During the bus ride to our hotel for the weekend, I google: What does “vocational” mean? (Answer: “relating to training in a skill or trade to be pursued as a career.”) What do you do in the US without a college education? (Answer: It’s not so easy.) And how many interns and trainees are there in Germany? (Answer: approx. 1.38 million in 2015.)

Our destination is Montreat, a town located in a so-called “dry county.” Live and learn. “Dry counties” prohibit or restrict the sale of alcohol – which is why we have brought our own.

Then the next surprise: Our accommodation is a “religious retreat.”

There are crosses on the wall, two bibles in the bedside drawer – and the young woman who starts to talk to me in the lobby is thrilled to hear that I am Catholic (thus not in need of conversion) and invites me to a Catholic Bible Study Camp right away. Unfortunately, I already have an appointment with my workshop group – but my conversion story makes for entertaining dinner conversation. We generally collect many stories and ideas: After all, we are supposed to think about what we would like to discuss during the next two days. From non-profit and NGO interns to more rights and fair pay for interns, the basic guiding idea is: “train for a career.”

The second day starts with a wonderful statement by TCG member Chris Fowler: “Don’t worry, it’s normal to have no idea what you are doing.” This is a little bit how I feel. The conversations are fascinating, we get all kinds of information, but I still do not quite understand what it is that we want to develop and achieve together here in Montreat, North Carolina.

In small-group discussions, we talk about what we consider to be relevant projects in the field of “vocational training and education.” While we hike up a nearby mountain under brilliant fall skies and sit in rocking chairs on a sunny lakeside porch, three general topics begin to crystallize: 1) concrete solutions for interns and trainees in the United States, 2) new, innovative communication possibilities for education and training opportunities, and 3) new fields of education and training that are not part of the current school system. I agree to work on the last topic, where I personally see interesting transatlantic connections.

Together with Claudia Strasser from the BMW Foundation and Franziska Wagner from Berlin, we draft a plan. We want to organize a transatlantic conference for American and German stakeholders who are active in the field of “extracurricular education” on subjects, fields, and topics “relevant to life.” Important issues for us are: practical approaches, economic topics, technological and digital (further) education – in short, topics that are currently not or insufficiently taught at German (and American) schools. We call it “Train for Life.” Stay tuned – there will be more!

The other two groups are busy, too. “Raising awareness for multiple pathways” wants to draw attention to different career opportunities. “Small business apprenticeships” wants to make possible a trainee exchange between big and small companies.

On day 3, we come together for the last time, gathering feedback and fleshing out ideas and plans. We exchange phone numbers, twitter handles, and last-minute speculations on the upcoming elections – and then most of us are heading home.

I am headed for New York where I want to spend election day. After all, how can I fly back on November 6 with this election taking place two days later! Little do I know at this point that, on election night, I will get dozens of phone calls from fellow journalists who are all eager for first impressions of an election result that was, at least according to many German media sources, “unpredictable.”

I spend the election evening at a viewing party in Manhattan in a hotel owned by a friend – Democrats clearly make up the majority of the audience. In fact, during my entire trip I meet only a few Trump voters. When the first votes come in, things are looking tight. The heat is up – literally, since the air conditioning has broken down. I decide to leave the hotel and go outside. In front of the Hilton Hotel, the broadcasting vans are lining up for miles on end. There are some ten Trump supporters, standing behind security fencing, dutifully answering the questions of the one hundred journalists queuing up in front of them. Not far from the Rockefeller Center, a man tumbles out of a carriage (yes, a real carriage, and yes, he tumbles out of it), shouts: “She’s in the lead,” stands up and starts to dance in the middle of the street.

At the Rockefeller Center, people are also celebrating Hillary’s lead. Newly cheered, I head back to the hotel to call it a night (it is quite late). But during my half-our walk back to the hotel, new voting results are coming in. When I am back online at the hotel, Trump is ahead. An hour later, Donald Trump is officially the “president-elect.”

The actual anti-Trump demonstrations do not start until after my departure on the morning of November 9. At Trump Tower, it is relatively quiet (though the building is, of course, cordoned off). A woman holds a sign saying “AAAAAHHHHH.” I sympathize.

I go to the airport with mixed feelings. In the subway, a young woman sitting next to me talks on the phone. There is no way she will go home for Thanksgiving, she says into the phone, she does not want the political discussions. I am thinking about how we would feel in Germany if (right-wing) populist parties would win next year’s Bundestag elections. And I am also thinking that it makes a lot of sense to not just observe and report on things “over there” on the other side of the Atlantic, but to actually talk with each other to take home ideas and inspiration, cautionary tales or successful approaches. I am thinking especially of “my” topic: digital, extracurricular education, “education” in general. And I am hoping that perhaps we will be able to organize a TCG workshop in 2017 on how to deal with populism, perhaps providing concrete solutions in the field of education from both sides of the Atlantic?