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Apprenticeships – One Of The Solutions For The Workforce Shortage Problem In U.S. Manufacturing?

Production Components is a representative and distributor for some of the top assembly equipment in the manufacturing sector.  Working with our principals and partners, we develop solutions for our customers that are robust, reliable, and affordable. We strive to add value to our principals and our customers, and help them to become more productive, more competitive, and more profitable.  Today we are debuting the first in a series of blogs regarding the challenges that face manufacturing companies today and some possible solutions. Our hope is to spark dialogue and share ideas about how best to solve these issues. Much of the content was inspired by and sourced from a recent story featured on NPR’s Marketplace program, but with additional insight specific to our market, focus and experience. Please share and contribute your thoughts.

Apprenticeship programs – One Of The Answers For The Shortage In The U.S. Workforce In Manufacturing?

The United States needs to create more manufacturing jobs: Nobody disputes this. The loss of manufacturing jobs is a problem here in the U.S. where factory workers are aging and manufacturers are worried there won’t be enough young people with the technical skills to do their jobs in the future.  The worker shortage is a national problem. Estimates are that U.S. manufacturers will need to fill more than 3.5 million jobs over the next decade.

Germany, which continues to maintain manufacturing at nearly a quarter of its economy (about twice the share as the US manufacturing has in our economy), doesn’t have the same worker shortage problem. Why is that?

A key element is Germany’s apprenticeship training program.  Every year, about half a million young Germans enter the workforce through their apprenticeship programs. This gives manufacturing in Germany a continuous stream of highly qualified workers, maintaining its well-deserved reputation for manufacturing top-quality goods.

The effectiveness of Germany’s Apprenticeship programs in preserving Germany’s manufacturing standing in the world has not gone unnoticed in political circles here the U.S.  Felix Rauner, a professor at the University of Bremen and one of the world’s leading authorities on apprenticeships and vocational education says, “Every president of the United States [in] the last 30 years, after becoming elected, said, ‘Oh, we should implement the apprenticeship system’,”

Rauner says the U.S. approach to education in the trades hasn’t been effective because it’s often not connected to specific jobs at real companies.  One of the reasons for this is the difficulty in getting American companies to buy into the apprenticeship programs because of the up-front cost of training.  Ludger Deitmer, also of the U of Bremen, is international research coordinator at the Institute of Technology and Education at the University, says that the low cost of apprentice labor reduces a company’s net training cost a little over $10,000,  The real pay-off, he adds, is that after three years they have a highly-skilled worker trained specifically for what that company does.

Starting in 2011, the German American Chamber of Commerce helped set up German-style apprenticeship programs in ten states: Georgia, Illinois, Wisconsin, Michigan, Indiana, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Alabama and Tennessee. Here’s how the programs are going in two of those states.


The state of Georgia, through a program called Georgia Consortium for Advanced Technical Training (CATT) starts high school students in a three-year program when they’re 15. The program matches the student with a nearby technical college and a factory where they learn technical skills on the actual plant floor.

Companies train and mentor high school students, but also commit to $25,000 to fund student salaries. There are 20 manufacturers that are part of the program.

Kenny Adkins with the Technical College System of Georgia says,  “There was a great need for not only this occupational training, but we also know that if these students graduate high school and go off to find themselves, then it takes them about 10 years to come back to the technical college system and look at the skilled trades as a viable career option,”

Georgia’s Lt. Gov. Cagle says the state of Georgia’s goal is to offer this kind of opportunity to every high school student by 2020. “This is a great win-win, for not only the student but obviously for industry,” said Cagle.

South Carolina

South Carolina started a program called Apprenticeship Carolina.  Unique about South Carolina’s program is that they have taken the apprenticeship beyond what is typical – the trades and manufacturing –  and implemented the program to other fields like nursing, pharmacy and IT.

Brad Neese, the program’s director, says, “When we started the program we only had 90 companies that had apprenticeship programs,  we’ve hit 670… we only had 777 apprentices in 2007. And we’ve now serviced nearly 11,000 apprentices. So it’s been a phenomenal growth.”

What’s the South Carolina’s secret of success? Firstly, they give a state tax credit for companies  – $1,000 per year per apprentice for four years.  The biggest factor though, is German companies like BMW and Bosch, which have plants in the state and brought with them the German system of apprenticeships.

At United Tool and Mold in Easley, S.C. , which repairs and re-engineers molds, the company has a successful apprenticeship program.  When asked why the program, United Tool and Mold manager Jeromy Arnett responds,  “Because every day, your workforce gets older. We’ve been walking around here for 20 minutes, and our workforce aged 20 minutes. We can’t go back and get the time from the employees that are growing older.”

The company followed the German model starting apprentices off early. They start after their junior year in high school, combining classwork with on-the-job training. “We didn’t go over and take verbatim what their model is, but a lot of how we set up our apprenticeship is based on that German model,” Arnett says.

Graduates of the company’s apprenticeship program make around $16 an hour and can earn up to $24 as they gain more experience.

“These folks in here are making a living so they can buy a house for their family, they put food on the table, they take that family vacation,” Arnett says. “They get the car that they want. Take care of their kids. To me, that’s middle class.”

So Why Aren’t There More Apprenticeship Programs In The U.S.?

“Apprenticeships are win-win,” says Former U.S. Labor Secretary Thomas Perez. “Apprenticeships are opportunities for young people to punch their ticket to the middle class and for employers to get that critical pipeline of skilled labor.”

One would think, given all the positives to be gained from apprenticeships, implementing the programs country-wide would be a no-brainer. Instead, in the last 15 years the number of apprentices in the U.S. has gone down from almost 500,000 to less than 300,000.

But people involved in apprenticeships have noticed the following: the stigma associated with a young person not going to college after high school.  In many cases, there is the belief that  a child going into the trades after high school, instead of college, is somehow a failure on both the child and parent’s parts.  This is not the case in many parts of Europe, where a student early on in high school is steered toward his or her vocation based on their strengths and aptitude. Europe understands that not everybody wants to be a CEO or sit behind a desk.  In Germany there’s still lots of prestige attached when someone, trained through apprenticeship, achieves master status.

“It’s a stigma that we’re trying to get over, especially in our schools,” Arnett says. “Just because they don’t have a sheet of paper hanging on the wall saying they went to school for four years doesn’t mean that they’re any less important to our country and the economy of our country than anyone else.”

Perez says apprenticeships can be a boon for the U.S. economy. But some of the toughest People to convince  are parents. “When you talk to people in the manufacturing context and you say, ‘Hey, your son or daughter should be an apprentice manufacturer,’ too many parents look at me and say, ‘Tom, my kid’s going to college.’ “.  Perez adds that apprentices can always get their degrees while they work — and employers will often help defray that cost.

Dave Zabrosky, North American Sales and Marketing Manager for SCHMIDT Technology Corporation (www.schmidtpresses.com; www.production-components.com/schmidt ) elaborates, “I began the college route, as most high school graduates have been and still are pushed to do now, and found, at significant personal and financial expense, it wasn’t a guaranteed springboard to success.  I was fortunate to find an apprenticeship program with a local tool and die company for machining and earn my journeyman papers while making a good wage.  The push for a college degree reflects many parent’s mindsets towards status instead of success or a vocation appropriate to their children’s aptitudes.  The skilled trades have been portrayed as a lower form of work, erroneously considered lower paying, dirty and unstable and as a result, we have lost generations of our skilled labor force.  This has left us, as a country, without the ability to manufacture for ourselves and with a job pool that is a vacuous glut of highly educated, unexperienced graduates that can’t find a job in the flooded markets that remain.”

Zabrosky points out that he progressed from journeyman machinist to head of all sales and marketing for a company in less than 12 years, and that he has multiple journeymen colleagues who have risen to such positions as regional sales managers, general managers of a company and company owners.  Zabrosky adds, “I tell kids all the time to consider the apprenticeship route. You get paid as you are working towards your journeyman’s papers, which is essentially a degree with experience, versus being in massive debt and unemployed with a piece of college letterhead in one hand while you knock on doors with the other.”

What’s Next?  What Do You Think?

So while Apprenticeships may not be a cure-all for the shortage in the manufacturing workforce, it could be one avenue to explore to help solve the problem.  It certainly seems to be working for Germany and looks to have real potential in the two states highlighted in this article.  Is there a way to start de-stigmatizing the fact that a student might want to build things instead of going to college?  Can the U.S. change its attitude regarding jobs in the trades vs. “white-collar” jobs?  Are there enough companies willing to take the risk and try something new like apprenticeships?  Are there better ways to build up the manufacturing work-force?  These are some of the questions we face as we look to the future in manufacturing.

As the U.S. explores new ways to remedy a lack of skilled labor with apprenticeships and specialty programs, we at Production Components believe that the proper machinery, tools and technology are essential in bridging the worker shortage gap.  Without the right tools and technology, no amount of manpower is going to drive the renaissance of manufacturing in this country. And in this time of increasing globalization, with emerging markets that promise amazing growth opportunity, and significant competition from those markets and other developed countries, we must be able to compete and be profitable with our manufacturing.

We invite you to talk to us about how the technology and machinery we represent can help create the kind of sustainability you and your company will need to get to stay competitive and profitable. And how harnessing today’s disruptive technologies can help your business attract the people you will need to grow and prosper over the next decade. If you have a comment or an opinion on this topic, go ahead and let us know by submitting your comments by clicking on “Leave a reply” at the top of this post.  We would love to hear from you.