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

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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

Seimens, she said, will be where she makes a career. “I can go anywhere – to Australia and Brazil and back,” she said. “I will still get to travel. That is the goal. But I plan on staying with Siemens. I have no reason to ever leave.”

CULTURAL SHIFT REQUIRED

Programs like the one offered by Siemens and a handful of other Charlotte area companies are small – just five or six new recruits a year in Siemens’ case. But the potential has caught the eye of U.S. policymakers and corporate executives. The German Embassy recently launched a “Skills Initiative” in the U.S. after hearing how German companies struggled to find workers for their highly automated factories and have been promoting the system in talks with U.S. corporations and local chambers of commerce.

To replicate the German apprenticeship system in the United States, however, would require a cultural shift away from viewing late adolescence as a time of exploration, and perhaps even away from the value associated with a higher education that is both broad and broadly accessible.

In a recent column in The Washington Post, the presidents of the University of Michigan and Stanford cautioned against a headlong dive toward what is deemed “useful” in higher learning, at the risk of “marginalizing the humanities and social sciences.”

“We cannot allow that to happen,” the two wrote. “These disciplines play an important role in educating students for future leadership and deal most directly with the human condition.”

At Johnson’s high school, Olympic Community of Schools, counselor Mike Realon said he is fighting a different battle. Half of the families in his racially diverse district live below the poverty line.

Yet not far from the school, Siemens has been hiring hundreds of new factory workers at a plant expanding to ride an anticipated boom in orders for large turbines powered by natural gas. The expansion of U.S. energy production is just one of the forces that may be combining to reshape the American industrial landscape, and Realon said he wants students at the school to latch on.

He has tried, he said, to set a tone in which vocational training or apprenticeships are acceptable alternatives for students who want or need to begin earning a living and might enjoy the hands-on work of a factory. The involvement of big corporate names such as Siemens, he said, has helped that sales pitch.

Each class of seniors “is so tied up in the ego part – ‘I need to say what college I am going to,’ ” Realon said from the school’s suburban campus, where five smaller specialty high schools are housed under one roof. “We don’t want to lower the bar for them. We are not here to squelch their dreams. ... But we build up the community college – that it is a viable pathway, and for many jobs and occupations it is the most effective.”

Among some of the students he has helped place in apprenticeships, “for the families – if those kids were not working they would not pay their mortgage,” he said.

COMMITMENT FROM INDUSTRY

The norms of U.S. companies would also have to change to make apprenticeship programs work on a large scale, said Bill Dillon, the community college’s associate dean. Among U.S. companies, he said, managers expect job applicants to arrive with skills already perfected and are hesitant to make the commitment – an investment of several tens of thousands of dollars – to shepherd a teenager through years of training and community college and into a job, paying them a full-time hourly wage all the while.

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