After the hustle and bustle of the capital city, our train passed through the countryside. Small family farms with goats abutted a busy railway. Our destination also lay in between the pastoral and the modern—the Hungarian city of Kecskemét is host to not only a new factory that produces the latest Mercedes cars, but also a neighboring training facility to supply Daimler with skilled labor.
Two of the more surprising discoveries is the manner in which the training program began and the age group that it targeted. In 2010, Daimler and a partner company, Knorr-Bremse based in Munich, approached two technical schools in Kecskemét and designed a curriculum for fourteen to seventeen-year-old apprentices. This bottom-up initiative—with some political support—brought students in direct contact with the latest technology for four days followed by six days of in-school instruction. Evaluating success is difficult after only a few years, but these companies have a long-term outlook.
So why are we in Hungary on a study trip about workforce development? It is an average-sized country along the old dividing line between East and West. Its economic performance compared with its peers within the European Union is also average. Its political future is questionable. Can the United States possibly learn anything from a country that was so embedded in the former Eastern Bloc?
There are several ways in which Hungary’s changing approach to skills training is relevant and even comparable to the United States. First, the country is trying to evolve its school-based approach to technical education to teach the skills a range of manufacturers need. Second, a pathway to college is still generally considered to be the only route to success, though with lower performing students relegated to a “lower” tier of education. Finally, the country has been a testbed for companies establishing training programs largely based on the German dual system that blends practical and theoretical education.
How successful has Hungary been in importing dual studies curricula? What has driven this development and who benefits? Does the cost of change exceed any long-term benefits? The point is: the United States certainly isn’t alone in trying to figure out these difficult questions.