By Mike Schmidt, AEM Industry Advisor Editor

German Apprenticeship ProgramIt’s no real secret why the skilled worker shortage is a problem of ever-growing significance for U.S. manufacturers.

Many companies today simply don’t invest the necessary time, effort and resources to develop their employees into long-term and productive organizational assets. Yet they wonder why they continually struggle to attract, engage and retain qualified workers. In short, it’s because they approach the task of workforce development without considering how their efforts are being perceived by the skilled laborers they want to employ.

“It’s not specifically just about learning a trade,” said Lutger Deitmer, senior research fellow and lecturer at the University of Bremen in Germany. “It’s about becoming well-rounded and learning lots of different things while learning a trade.”

Developing skilled workers takes time. And in Deitmer’s opinion, there’s no better way for a manufacturer to ensure it will have a strong labor force in the future than to establish and implement a successful apprenticeship program.

The German Apprenticeship Model

As an expert in vocational education, Deitmer boasts a strong understanding of his country’s approach to workforce development. All large companies in Germany offer apprenticeships, regardless of industry. The programs also receive a tremendous amount of both union and institutional support, and key stakeholders are committed to ensuring the continued quality of their apprenticeship programs.

“And we say you can’t do it in three months,” said Deitmer. “You do the coursework, you put in the time, and then you are certified and can work anywhere in our country.”

German apprenticeships are defined by both the quantity of time a student spends learning and the quality of education he or she receives, and most last between two and three-and-a-half years. Generally speaking, an apprentice’s first year in the program is spent learning and honing the necessary skills to do his or her job well. The second year often sees an apprentice begin to take on projects and more complex tasks. Finally, the third and usually last year of the program typically presents an apprentice with an opportunity to go out into the world and start to make a living.

Apprentices then embark on one of two paths: staying in a vocational track, or leaving it and entering the university system before coming back into the trades at a later date. As an example, said Deitmer, 60 to 70 percent of German engineers working today possess an apprenticeship background.

“They think differently and understand the practical side of things,” he added. “Apprenticeship programs produce really good engineers, and their innovation activity is very high.”

After their apprenticeships conclude, the vast majority of skilled workers in Germany choose to remain with the company that fostered their development. According to Deitmer, the situation often ends up being a win-win for everyone involved.

“Our companies say it benefits them, and they are happy,” he said. “The investment is spread out over time, and there’s also a return on that investment.”

Local communities where these companies are found and their surrounding areas also stand to benefit from German apprenticeship programs. They help provide a better standard of living for citizens by offering quality job opportunities, and apprentices are able to learn skills they can carry with them for the remainder of their professional careers.

 

Deitmer

 

 “It’s not specifically just about learning a trade,” said Lutger Deitmer, senior research fellow and lecturer at the University of Bremen in Germany. “It’s about becoming well-rounded and learning lots of different things while learning a trade.”

 

 The European Apprenticeship Model In Action

Many manufacturers today struggle to find and train qualified skilled workers. However, until the industry does away with the pervasive mentality that there are enough people who are willing and able to do skilled labor, there’s reason to believe a shortage of talent will continue to plague manufacturing for the foreseeable future.

Companies need to recognize the value of investing in people. Employees are more than assets. They are essentially the lifeblood of organizations. And without quality people doing good work, companies are essentially doomed to failure.

One AEM member, Savannah, Georgia-based construction equipment manufacturer JCB, has come to recognize this fact and has made workforce development an organizational strength through the development and implementation of a European-style apprenticeship program.

It’s been nearly two decades since JCB established its North American headquarters and a full-fledged manufacturing facility in Savannah. Upon its arrival in Georgia’s third-largest city, JCB hoped to find a population capable of meeting its needs for a talented workforce. However, the city’s struggling education system prevented the company from obtaining the level of area talent it needed to adequately support its manufacturing and service activities.

In an effort to combat the problem, JCB established its apprenticeship program in 2012. The goal was simple: Build a labor force for manufacturing by ingraining the apprenticeship model into the company’s culture.

“We took the playbook from (Europe) and implemented it here with a few changes,” said Tonya Poole, vice president of human resources for JCB.

JCB teamed up with local organizations already working to support workforce development initiatives and began recruiting efforts for its apprenticeship program in 2012. The company welcomed five apprentices and fully funded their participation in that first year by paying for tuition, uniforms, schoolbooks and other necessary materials.

The apprentices then commenced with a five-year program which called for spending partial days in school and the remainder of the time at work at JCB. According to Poole, the school-work hybrid portion of the company’s apprenticeship program lasts two to three years in total, at which time apprentices tailor much of the time left to specific individual interests and long-term career goals.

“We pay them to go to school, and we pay them to come to work,” she said. “So there’s compensation, and they are treated like full-time employees. They have holiday pay. They have time off.”

Ultimately, said Poole, what ultimately resulted from JCB’s creation and implementation of a comprehensive European-style apprenticeship program was a workforce development solution that is beneficial for both employer and employee.

“Our objective was to develop a program and put it in place to ensure we had the workforce we needed going forward,” said Poole. “Our students understand that we offer high-tech, well-paying jobs in a clean and safe environment, and that there are tremendous opportunities available to grow with us.”

 

Poole

 “Our objective was to develop a program and put it in place to ensure we had the workforce we needed going forward,” said Tonya Poole, vice president of human resources for JCB. “Our students understand that we offer high-tech, well-paying jobs in a clean and safe environment, and that there are tremendous opportunities available to grow with us.”

 

 Solving the Skilled Worker Shortage

If the skilled labor shortage is a problem of great significance today, then what happens when America’s aging workforce is no longer there to pick up the slack? The manufacturing industry is always evolving and changing, and the most successful companies are evolving with it and acting accordingly. Meanwhile, organizations that don’t find themselves struggling to meet long-term goals and remain profitable. 

As a result, it’s critical for equipment manufacturers to be able to connect with the workforce of tomorrow, inspire them to strongly consider careers in the industry and – perhaps most importantly – develop them into qualified employees in the most efficient and effective manner possible. And in the opinion of Deitmer, the best course of action for U.S. manufacturers to take is to build an apprenticeship program based on the tried and true German model.  

“Embracing the German apprenticeship model would really strengthen America in its best sense,” said Deitmer. “It requires a shift, but it’s not expensive. So why wouldn’t it work?”

Workforce development is among the key topics discussed at AEM's series of Thinking Forward events. For more information and to see a full lineup of the exciting AEM Thinking Forward locations and speakers on tap for 2018, visit https://www.aem.org/think/.

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