A Path Toward Apprenticeships

With the help of government, we will create an American apprenticeship program with the same success as the Germans.


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In my role as director of workforce development at the Symbol Training Institute, this past November I had the good fortune of traveling to Heilbronn, Potsdam, and Erfurt, Germany, as part of The Transatlantic Cluster Initiative’s delegation on metalworking. Organized by the German American Chamber of Commerce of the Midwest (GACC Midwest), this initiative brought together leading German and U.S. industry manufacturing professionals to promote an exchange of knowledge and best practices.

The culture of German companies differs from U.S. companies in three significant ways.

First, the German career pathway provides lifetime careers with advancement from shop floor to C-suite at the company. This provides German companies with a solid workforce and low turnover because of the loyalty and reliability of their employees. This culture within the society is nurtured and strongly supported by the government. Advanced training is a critical component of these manufacturing companies. In fact, many have established on-site education centers where employees can obtain needed training to advance in their jobs. The German government takes this training seriously, and it plays a significant role by contributing financially to this education process. However, the capital expenditure needed for this benefit is not something you would find at manufacturing companies in the U.S.

Here, the career pathway is fractured because each company has its own modus operandi. There is no set way of governing operating principles amongst the companies. Instead, competition takes over, with the focus more on what is happening within the four walls of the business and their profits. This short-term thinking fails to consider the employee’s growth and contribution to the industry as a whole. Most companies in our country behave as an island unto themselves. This is especially true in the case of U.S. advanced manufacturing: the backbone of our economy, yet sadly a fragmented industry.

Second, the U.S. educational system mostly concentrates on preparing high school students to enter college. This idea is more entertaining than practical. U.S. college drop-out rates and employment-after-college statistics clearly show this system is not benefitting many of our students. German schools, on the other hand, have a program that prepares its students for both college and employment in the trades. An integral component of these trade programs in schools is apprenticeships. Students begin their training at age 14 or 15. They attend school at night while participating as a paid apprentice in a manufacturing company during the day. Through this program, students obtain real world experience immediately and are ready for the actual shop floor in a manufacturing company from day one, usually by the age of 16.

Finally, with everything previously said, there appears to be a more loyal workforce in Germany than is seen at U.S. companies. One reason is that German manufacturers are far more willing to invest in training their people without fear of their competitors recruiting these employees once trained. Another reason for the loyalty is that German manufacturers will shorten workweeks and hours in lean times rather than slashing their workforce. There is more job security. There is more consideration and loyalty from the company to the employee. This naturally creates loyal employees.

I am in favor of U.S. high schools following the German model of incorporating education in the trades into their curriculum to provide a solid choice to its students. An apprenticeship program should be an integral part of a high school’s curriculum. The U.S. Department of Labor has started to make inroads here by providing initial funding to start these programs. However, the U.S. needs to do more. Allowing for an emphasis on pursuing jobs in the trades, in addition to preparing to enter college, will provide our high school students with more opportunity.

There is much we can learn from the German model. Most important is their adoption of solid advancement opportunities. For U.S. manufacturers to remain stable and relevant, they need to also develop a means to a career path for the next generation. A countrywide, government-funded apprenticeship program is the answer.