Manufacturing and the German Model

Wednesday, September 7, 2011
I’m writing this blog two days after Labor Day and one day before President Obama’s job-focused speech to a joint session of Congress, so I’m thinking a lot about the problem of high unemployment and underemployment. But the job-related story that caught my eye in today’s paper was the obituary of someone you’ve probably never heard of: Keith Tantlinger.

Tantlinger, who died on August 27 at age 92, was the engineer who designed the modern shipping container in the 1950s. His crucial innovation was a locking mechanism on the corners of the containers that allowed them to be stacked on ships, trains, and trucks. He also designed the corners to be easily grasped by cranes. I once watched a ship being loaded in the port of Hamilton, Bermuda, and marveled at the way the containers were being piled high on the deck rather than just being lowered into the hold, as I thought cargo was supposed to be stowed.

So what did this innovation have to do with jobs? It drastically reduced the costs of shipping goods by simplifying the process of transferring the goods from one carrier to another. Specifically, it reduced the costs of labor, damage, and pilferage. Cheaper shipping made it possible for us to stock our WalMarts with Chinese-manufactured goods and thus was one of the key factors causing the loss of manufacturing jobs in the United States. In 1969, about one-quarter of U.S. jobs were in manufacturing, but that number is now down at around 9 percent. It contributes to about 11 percent of our economy now.

But it’s important to understand that manufacturing doesn’t have to be a dead industry in the United States. In Germany, it accounts for about 25 percent of the economy and helps Germany’s keep trade balance second only to China’s. What can explain the difference?

One factor is the German emphasis on vocational education, including widespread apprenticeship, even for white-collar jobs.

Another is Kurzarbeit, which allows companies to cut workers’ hours while keeping them on the payroll, with the government making up a portion of the lost wages. Companies thus don’t lose their skilled workers during temporary downturns, and employees don’t lose good work habits and their relationships with bosses and coworkers.

Still another factor is the German banking system, which includes Sparkasse banks owned by local governments rather than private investors and functioning like savings and loans to provide funding for local businesses and homeowners. Their high collateral requirements (at least 20 percent for a mortgage) prevented these banks from engaging in the risky home loans that American lending institutions still have not recovered from.

Perhaps most intriguing of all is the role of workers in the management of German companies. This takes three forms. First, unionization is high, at about 20 percent, compared to our rate of less than 7 percent. Labor unions in Germany tend to influence policy at the industrywide level. At individual worksites, workers influence decisions about wages, hiring, and work conditions through “works councils,” which consist of employees (not necessarily union members) elected for four-year terms. Finally, under the policy of codetermination (Mitbestimmungs), corporate boards are required to include representatives of workers as well as representatives of shareholders. At corporations with 500 to 2000 employees, one-third of the board represents the workers; at larger companies, it’s half of the board.

Although low-skill American manufacturing jobs continue to be lost to overseas workers, advanced manufacturing processes are creating high-skill jobs. I detail some of these jobs in 200 Best Jobs for Renewing America. But manufacturing could regain even more of its lost role in our economy if we borrowed some ideas from the German model.


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