November 30, 2013

The appeal of the apprenticeship

Recasting the educational experience, German companies are transplanting their pay-to-learn model stateside ... and finding takers among the cost-conscious middle class.

By Howard Schneider
The Washington Post

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — As a high school junior, Hope Johnson thought she had things figured out. She’d been hit with wanderlust during an academic trip to Brazil, set her sights on London’s Richmond University and hoped to pursue a career in diplomacy.

click image to enlarge

Baron Caber, left, a machinist, works with Hope Johnson, a third-year apprentice at the Siemens plant in Charlotte, N.C., earlier this month. Johnson is measuring a compressor component in the vertical boring machine. “It is a lot of responsibility for a 16- or 17-year-old to say, hey, this is my future,” Johnson said. “But kids need more responsibility. ... Based on what my friends are doing, I think America would benefit from this becoming broader.”

Nanine Hartzenbusch/The Washington Post

It was just the kind of white-collar job that would take her far from the confines of this modest southern city and please her dad, an elevator repairman who wanted his daughter to graduate from a four-year college.

That was before the 16-year-old was offered a life-defining choice by Siemens, the German industrial conglomerate: Drop everything, enroll in a competitive European-style apprenticeship, and get a free technical education and job in return.

Johnson opted for the job. The allure of traditional college life was strong, she said, “but you gotta pay the bills.”

Now, she’s learning to work with formless metal on a high-tech factory floor as part of a program that some see as an answer to one of the chief challenges facing the U.S. economy: Why, when so many people, particularly the young, are looking for work, do high-level manufacturing jobs at places like Siemens go unfilled? The country has the world’s most extensive and sophisticated higher education system, yet top executives warn of a crisis in the science, technology, engineering and math disciplines considered to be at the core of global economic competitiveness.

German companies such as Siemens in Charlotte or Wacker Chemical, which is building a working model of its polysilicon plant to train potential employees at Chattanooga State Community College, say German-style apprenticeship programs might help untie the knot.

At the center of the debate are people like Johnson – smart, but not academic superstars; motivated, but also concerned about the cost of college; wary of debt and from a family where tuition would be a burden.

They are in the middle of the middle class – the group perhaps most disrupted by the global trends that have eaten away at the country’s manufacturing base, kept wages stagnant and contributed to a sense of stalled economic mobility.

Unlike the apprenticeships common in the United States, the programs launched by German firms attempt to find potential workers early. In Germany, it’s not unusual for students to stop traditional high school at the equivalent of 10th grade and spend several years working and studying.

It’s no easy call for a U.S. high school senior, with friends chattering about where they want to go to college and parents insisting that’s the surest path to a productive life. There’s the volleyball team to think about, the final parties with friends and the send-off milestones such as the senior class photo.

Johnson set that all aside and began splitting her time among high school, technical classes at Central Piedmont Community College, and a Siemens factory that builds steam- and natural-gas-fired turbines for power plants around the world. Look for her today, three years later, and you’ll find her on the sunrise shift running a vertical boring mill alongside crews that are mostly male and twice her age. But this is no grimy shop floor. Clean, quiet and highly automated, it’s a factory where the workers need to have as much comfort with a computer as they do turning a screw.

By the end of her four-year fellowship, when she will be 20, Johnson will have a foothold in the labor force and an associate degree – without the debt that has increasingly made many young people wary of college. She will also be earning about $34,000 a year, according to the Charlotte area Apprenticeship 2000 program, which Johnson joined.

(Continued on page 2)

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