Critics of American industry have been urging U.S. business executives to look to Japan as an example of how to do it right.

There's no question that the Japanese have chalked up a series of industrial miracles. Just look at the Toyotas and Datsuns, the Suzukis and the Yamahas, the Nikons and the Sonys that are grabbing ever larger shares of the American market.

But since the Japanese are so different, culturally and socially, from Americans, their example might be hard for us to emulate. Perhaps we should look instead to Germany.

That, at least, is the advice Joseph A. Limprecht and Robert H. Hayes offer in the current issue of the Harvard Business Review. Not only are the Germans more like Americans, they say, but they also are outstripping us in two critical areas: employment and product reliability. What is their secret?

"If the Germans have had any secret weapon during Europe's post-1973 economic difficulties, it is the technical competence of their work force, which is in turn the product of their apprenticeship system," the authors contend. Fully half of Germany's young people leave full-time school by age 16 to begin three-year apprenticeships in their chosen trades. One result of the approach: Germany's mid-1981 teen-age unemployment was only 5.1 percent -- slightly less than the rate for all workers. By contrast, the jobless rate for the young in America is triple that of adult workers.

"Both government and unions favor this (voluntary) approach," say Limprecht and Hayes, "because it helps address the problem of youth unemployment by providing teen-agers with a marketable trade and good discipline. . . . Industry likes the system because it builds a work force that is highly skilled -- especially in the high-technology industries that are crucial to the German economy -- as well as motivated and responsible.

"When young people are trained by industry, not by the state, and are given considerable work experience and responsibility at an early age, they become very attractive to future employers. These employers are willing to furnish whatever retraining is necessary because they have found, through long experience, that apprentices adapt well to different work environments."

The German system, in other words, is producing young workers with precisely the skills our experts say will be in increasingly short supply here in the coming years.

Hayes, a professor of business administration at Harvard, and Limprecht, a career Foreign Service officer who served in Germany, note something else about Germany's approach with implications for American industry:

The American tendency is to rely on market research and responsiveness to customer complaints, in an effort to boost sales quickly. Indeed, one of the most common criticisms of American industry is that it overemphasizes short-term profitability at the expense of serious long-term concerns. Say the authors:

"Customer orientation in German means something quite different: the delivery, on schedule, of finely engineered products that will not only sell well but sell well over time. Backed up by a reliable service network, such products generate a self-perpetuating reputation for quality, which German companies regard as the best possible marketing tool."

As a result of its progressive outlook, Germany, with its relatively small businesses, high labor costs and dearth of natural resources, is more than holding its own in the world market. How?

"The not-so-glib answer," say the authors, "is that one must first ensure long-term survival. Who can grow the fastest or show the highest return on equity are, to a German manager, secondary, almost frivolous questions." The Japanese couldn't have said it better.