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Northeast Ohio, German Cities Look To Help Each Other Into The Future

Cleveland City Councilman Blaine Griffin (left) looks at the Phoenixsee in Dortmund, Germany, which used to be a steel factory. [Photo courtesy of the American Council on Germany]

Cities of today, no matter where they are, big or small, seem to have the same problem: how to also be a city of tomorrow.

The definition of what "city of tomorrow" can vary widely, but it might include how to have reliable and efficient technology for the city, businesses, and residents as well as how to train workers for jobs that will keep a city competitive and thriving.

Civic leaders from Cleveland, Youngstown and Pittsburgh recently met with counterparts from Germany for a fact-finding mission exploring these issues. The non-profit American Council on Germany organized tours on both sides of the Atlantic for civic leaders to share best practices and figure out new ones in its program Transatlantic Cities of Tomorrow: Digitalization and the Future of Work.

“There [are] a lot of differences in the culture of Germany versus that of America, but there are definitely some lessons to be learned,” says Matthew Fieldman, an exchange participant from Cleveland and vice president for external affairs at MAGNET, a manufacturing consultancy and workforce training non-profit.

“We have been adapting the European model to Northeast Ohio for the past three years,” Fieldman says. “I wanted to see how the alignment happens between business and academia. That’s something we’re just getting in to here in Northeast Ohio, where businesses and academia are really sitting around the same table and talking through what the business needs and what academia can provide.”

Fieldman also wanted to see Germany’s community college system and compare the resources those institutions and students have compared to counterparts in the United States.

“I found that the resources are not that different. It’s just a connection between the institution and the employers of that region that is stronger,” he says.

Germany’s system has some details that might not mesh with the U.S. mindset, Fieldman says, like parents choosing a career track as early as fifth grade and Germany not having as much focus on local school board control as in the United States. Also, tax rates are higher in Germany.

But Fieldman says some German practices can help Northeast Ohio and the United States change entrenched views.

“The institutions we’re working with — the community colleges, academia — they’re basically aircraft carriers, and it can take a while to turn those around and make them pivot to new models,” Fieldman says. “The other thing we’re fighting against is a cultural piece that they don’t have in Germany, which is that certain jobs are considered dark, dirty, and dangerous, that manufacturing is fighting against 20 years of misperceptions about what the trade actually is, what the jobs actually do.”

Vocational programs are still combating the idea that everyone should go to college, Fieldman says, while the German system is set up more to help someone get a job than get them into college.

In June, the U.S. Department of Labor selected Lorain County Community College to help administer a $12 million grant aimed at training Ohio workers through apprenticeships. The Ohio Manufacturing Workforce Partnership will look to "upskill" or train 5,000 Ohioans in the next four years.

“Looking to Cleveland, we are facing similar changes,” says Daniela Schneckenburger, a participant in the civic leader exchange and a city councilwoman responsible for education in the German city of Dortmund, in the western Ruhr region. Its story may sound familiar to Northeast Ohioans: Dortmund is an industrial hub of the past trying to leap into the future.

“We lost a lot of working places in the last 30 or 40 years because our steel industry went down, as it went down in your region,” Schneckenburger says. “We lost about 130,000 working places in Dortmund.”

The Ruhr region faces high unemployment, lagging infrastructure investment and a brain drain. But it’s trying to reinvent itself bit by bit.

Dortmund City Councilwoman Daniela Schneckenburger (center) visiting INVENTORcloud in Youngstown.  [Photo courtesy of the American Council on Germany]

Schneckenburger sees space for her city and Ohio cities to cooperate: sharing knowledge in business development and educational programs, investment in digital infrastructure and more.

She particularly would like to see more projects between cities encouraging the exchange of knowledge and expertise in STEM fields and preparing students for the future.

Some of the U.S. adoption of German best practices could be hampered, however, by financing.

Germany’s tax rates are higher than in the United States and its governance structure is unique, too, says Blaine Griffin, a Cleveland City Councilman from Ward 6, another program participant.

“I think it’s going to be incumbent upon the people trying to advocate for our communities to really come up with the right algorithm for us to be successful at this. I don’t think that we can take everything that Germany did, because it may be doomed to fail,” he says.

Griffin would like to see more certifications for skilled labor that workers can take with them. After an 18-month program, a person should have a certification to help them get a job right away, instead of waiting for a college degree that doesn’t even lead to a job in the end.

“There are some good jobs in Industry 4.0 — 3-D printing, and all these other things like that — that you can actually make a good job, and it does take critical thinking, and it’s not boring, like you’re just pressing a button and moving a piece of steel down the line,” Griffin says.

Cleveland has some successful programs in place that could be expanded. Griffin points to Max S. Hayes High School and its vocational and career training programs, saying the model should be replicated on Cleveland’s East Side.

But to make some advancements, Griffin says Cleveland would need better smart-city infrastructure.

“Right now, if we’re dealing with a digital divide, we’re going to continue having disparities for some of our poor, minority communities and pretty much communities with people that are black and brown, that don’t even have the basic skills to even get into Industry 4.0,” he says.

The challenges of infrastructure and of a hollowed-out city core stood out to Devin Dienes, an exchange participant from Darmstadt, near Germany’s financial capital Frankfurt.

He’s a project manager with a government-backed initiative to make Darmstadt a forward-looking digital city. 

“What impression I took with me from Cleveland is I was wondering, ‘Hey, you have so many green places in Cleveland, why didn’t someone build over it?’ And I was told those were built, but the people moved away from downtown. And I said, 'Oh my God, I’ve not seen a German city who had those problems—maybe in the East',” Dienes says.

The entire exchange group meets with the mayor of Darmstadt to learn about the digital city initiative. Devin Dienes pictured center, with his arm crossed.  [Photo courtesy of the American Council on Germany]

Cleveland was new to Dienes, and he said he had only ever been to New York and Washington, D.C. — meaning his first impressions of Northeast Ohio would be his only impressions so far.

“Everyone was so optimistic although the problems in front of them to overcome are so much higher than everything I know here, and I think, Oh why is everyone so depressed here in Darmstadt, a growing city, you know,” he says. “And if I take one thing away from my tour in America: you are optimistic, and you will work to make things better for yourself and also for your community.”

Dienes appreciated that optimism, as well as what he found to be a genuine curiosity about the German model. He says jokingly he’d appreciate the Rock Hall opening a satellite location in his city to further cooperation.

But he left the United States with an important takeaway about perceptions: In reading newspapers from the United States and Germany, or watching television news, he had the impression that the U.S. is hopelessly divided.

But after interacting with Republicans, Democrats, and just people, Dienes says he feels that the media portrayal of hopeless division is greatly oversold.

The participants in the Northeast Ohio and Pittsburgh exchange to Germany will reunite with participants from other U.S. and German cities for a final meeting in April of 2021.


This story is part of American Graduate: Getting to Work, a public media initiative made possible by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Tony Ganzer has reported from Phoenix to Cairo, and was the host of 90.3's "All Things Considered." He was previously a correspondent with the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation, covering issues like Swiss banks, Parliament, and refugees. He earned an M.A. in International Relations (University of Leicester); and a B.Sc. in Journalism (University of Idaho.) He speaks German, and a bit of French.