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

(Continued from page 2)

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

“We have trouble thinking out four quarters, let alone four years,” he said.

The community college currently includes about 75 students who are progressing through Apprenticeship 2000, a coalition of eight companies, including Siemens, that select the applicants, pay tuition and a full-time hourly wage, and guarantee a job at the end of the process.

The companies also choose the curriculum – and there is no wiggle room. The apprentices are grouped together for coursework that leads to an associate degree in mechatronics, a hybrid discipline pioneered in Japan and Germany that melds the basics of mechanical engineering, electronics and other areas.

It produces workers that can program, operate and fix the machines common to the factories run by Siemens and other top companies. There used to be an elective among the 24 courses the students take. That was replaced with a logics class.

The companies balked at paying for “the history of rock ’n’ roll. ... They didn’t want that,” said Eric Easton, program coordinator for apprenticeships at the college. The curriculum as it stands now, he said, is in “lockstep” with how mechatronics is taught in Germany.

The community college’s facilities include a $3 million lab that amounts to a full-scale model of a modern factory – gleaming with imported Festa components that look like a steroid version of the latest Lego toys. Robotic logistics units let students learn how to set up and repair delivery systems, and model assembly lines teach them to diagnose problems with sequences of electronic motors. In another room, they work on orbital lathes that cut across five planes, or gather for a trigonometry lesson using an old-school sine bar to measure angles.

“Does this program fit over here? No. It was a really slow start,” said Jorma Harkonen, a mechanical engineering instructor at the college who has helped oversee the apprentice program.

The college is trying to spread the gospel to new industries and disciplines – exploring whether information technology or health-care companies might have a similar common curriculum they could unite behind.

Johnson thinks more students may be interested.

“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.”

And parents will come around, too. Johnson’s dad died this year, but before he did, he framed and hung on the wall an award she won from the community college.

It was for excellence in advanced manufacturing.

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