How One Reporter Took Lessons Learned From Europe Back to Cleveland

The Plain Dealer’s Patrick O’Donnell used his EWA Fellowship to explore career and technical education abroad

The Plain Dealer’s Patrick O’Donnell had a feeling his story was bigger than just Cleveland. His team heard reports of people graduating from high school and struggling to find gainful employment, while employers in the area complained of a mismatched skill level when hiring for trade jobs. What was it about Cleveland’s pipeline for trade workers that wasn’t lining up? Why was it so difficult to find and pair skilled workers with stable jobs in a depressed city so desperately in need of that stability?

His research had him digging into Nashville’s career and technical education (CTE) programs as a comparable model, and then his team started thinking: What are other countries doing? When he asked the experts, they pointed to programs in places like Germany and Switzerland, where kids start training for niche trade jobs as young as 15, pathways that just don’t exist in the United States at the same scale.

O’Donnell knew that, to drive this point home, hearing directly from students and employers in these countries would be the best way to tell this story. Since having a local paper bankroll a trip to Europe is not a reality in most newsrooms, he looked elsewhere for financial support and applied for the EWA reporting fellowships, which award fellows up to $8,000 to cover reporting costs.

With funds and editorial support locked in, he was able to travel to Germany, Switzerland and the Netherlands in early 2019 to compare their European apprenticeship models to Cleveland’s current broken system. The result: the 10-part series Pathways to Prosperity, which dove into the models of the three countries, profiled students, and looked into the cultural differences in the European and American approaches to the relationships between the workforce and higher education.

O’Donnell’s interest in finding ambitious ways to cover career and technical education will continue with his recently announced Woodrow Wilson Higher Education Media Fellowship, which awards journalists $10,000 to cover CTE issues.

In this Q&A, O’Donnell talked to the Education Writers Association about his experiences as an American journalist abroad, what’s stopping Americans from adopting more centralized apprenticeship structures, and hearing the truth over stroopwafels. The conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Photo courtesy of Patrick O’Donnell

How many years have you been on the education beat? 8 years

First journalism job: The Haverhill Gazette in Haverhill, Massachusetts, between sophomore and junior year of college full-time

Previous publications: Interned at The Boston Globe

What drew you to the education beat?

I think a lot of people have misconceptions about covering the education beat. A lot of people think of schools as happy feel-good places with loving adults doing nice things for kids, and that the real political, hard stories are more in the legislature. But there’s almost as much money — or sometimes more money — going into schools. There’s as much going on, with adults fighting for money and cutting corners and misrepresenting things in schools, as there is in other parts of government.

For your EWA fellowship, you went to Germany, Switzerland and the Netherlands to see how they structure their skills trainings compared to Clevand. What made you choose those countries?

I’ll back up a second and say Cleveland is one of the most depressed cities in the country. We heard lots of things at the paper about people graduating high school or college [but] not being able to find a job with the skill set they had. And our business staff heard lots of things about companies that can’t find people with the right skills. There were a lot of reports coming out around Cleveland about this mismatch between the skills people have and what the jobs require.

As part of that, we wanted to take a look: Were there other folks nationally that were doing a better job? And how were folks internationally doing a better job? What were completely different approaches that other folks used to prepare young people for careers where they can have a living wage and have a good life?

We really wanted to go and take a look at the European models. A few things led us to those particular countries. We talked to lots of experts about apprenticeships and other models. Lots of folks had high opinions about Germany, though there are significant cultural differences there. A lot of folks talked about Switzerland being a real model. Then we talked to some local foundations who had taken their own trip to learn about these things and had visited the Netherlands.

You mentioned that Germany specifically has stark cultural differences compared to the U.S. Can you speak more broadly on that?

For instance, all the big European countries have national health plans. Employers don’t have the same health insurance burden. The unions are much stronger. Hiring people and laying them off as business goes up and down doesn’t happen to the same degree as it does here. There’s a mentality that you’re hiring employees for the long term. Employees are not disposable items, and jobs are not something people jump around to a lot. Lower skills jobs, because of the unions, have much higher wages than in the United States.

There is more of a sense of responsibility to the whole that companies feel about training young people. Yes, they can spend a lot of time training someone who winds up at another company, but they also benefit from hiring from other companies knowing there are high skill levels. Because so many of the companies are agreeing to similar [training] standards, you have a much better applicant pool, and that benefits everybody.

What about your experience as an American reporter in these countries? Did you encounter any language barriers or awkward moments due to that identity?

We are lucky in the United States because lots and lots of other countries learn English. Almost all the adults I came across spoke English, and many students too. It meant I was talking to the higher performance kids because they speak English well, but a lot of them spoke English just fine.

I have a pretty good radar for nonsense and spin and when kids are trying to say a company line. [When that happened,] I got them apart from the adults and talked to them and felt they were genuine interactions.

There was a school I visited in Rotterdam in the Netherlands where students are picking sales or marketing or working with the public, and they often do projects involving stores in the mall.

I asked the kids, “What is it that I should definitely see during this visit to the Netherlands and Rotterdam to get the true Netherlands?” and they asked me if I’ve tried stroopwafel. So three of the kids took me to a place in the mall after. It was the perfect chance for them to tell me, “Yeah, everything we told you in front of the teacher was nonsense, and we hate this place, and don’t believe it,” — and they didn’t. Instead, even apart from the teachers, they were really enjoying their program. I had a really good feeling after I left that place that day.

After this series was published, did you have any response from your reader community or from local businesses reaching out in curiosity? What value did people see in it translating to your coverage area? 

We got a lot of different responses. There’s a certain section of the readership that will dismiss anything that comes from Europe as socialism. But there’s a significant and growing belief among a lot of the public about vocational education and career and technical education being much more important and needing to be highlighted a lot more than just pushing kids towards college. This added to that debate. We did not see a huge groundswell, [but] we did raise a lot of awareness of what’s out there; we let a lot of folks know there are different ways of doing things; and we were able to highlight a few companies in Cleveland taking on similar challenges and creating something of an apprentice program here. If those work, and continue to be a long-term benefit to the company, people will want to know. You can’t quite order people to do apprentices and overhaul the entire program, but it does contribute to that debate.

Do you have any advice for your fellow journalists about education reporting in general?

From my perspective, it’s the same thing that people tell you about a lot of other reporting: Follow the money. Always understand all the biases involved in the people trying to make decisions about education. It’s not all happy and feel-good stories about adults doing wonderful things and caring for kids. There’s a lot of that, but I think there’s as much controversy behind the scenes about what money gets spent on as there are in other parts of government.

Because it’s the beginning of the new year, do you have any 2020 reporting resolutions? 

[In Cleveland,] there’s an ongoing fight about vouchers. There’s state report cards for schools and districts. There are still lots of debates in Ohio about how online schools are funded.  Dropout recovery schools: What is the best way to evaluate these schools that try to help kids in danger of never graduating get up to speed?

Hopefully I’ll be able to fit in some happy stories and successes of kids in there. I really would like to find places that are doing really good jobs moving kids along and placing them in careers where they’ll have a happy and fulfilling life. I’d really like to find, particularly on this job training thing, places that are having good success in moving kids along and placing them into meaningful careers to make them have a fulfilling life. It’s going to take finding successes of different approaches so people can have an example to follow.