The Apprentice, But for Real: How Some Companies Close the Skills Gap

Facing a shortfall of skilled labor for advanced manufacturing, some U.S. companies are stealing a page from the European playbook.


STANLEY, N.C. — U.S. manufacturers told President Donald Trump at the White House last month that they can’t find enough workers to fill increasingly high-tech factory jobs. But some German and Austrian companies operating in North Carolina are having no such trouble fielding a 21st-century workforce: They’re building it themselves, teenager by teenager.

The companies, under a program called Apprenticeship 2000, are plucking kids before they leave high school, training them through community college courses, and then on the factory floor to program, repair, and calibrate machines that make everything from cabinet knobs to car parts.

Graduates emerge from the four-year program with 8,000 hours of training, an associate’s degree in applied science, and a job offer — for roughly a $36,000 annual salary — at one of the companies. The price tag: $170,000 in training costs plus $90,000 in salary spread over four years. But the graduates don’t have to stay with the company after completing the program.  

Apprentice 2000 produces the “kids that we’re looking for,” said Troy DeVlieger, president of Pfaff Molds USA, a maker of car parts that sponsors the program. “All of the students in the program are ready to work in advanced manufacturing.”

That should be music to the ears of the U.S. manufacturing industry, which has an estimated 310,000 unfilled jobs. Manufacturers have complained for years that job applicants don’t have the skills to program, fix, and operate the complex machinery in today’s modern factory.

Three out of four manufacturing executives said a lack of skilled workers is slowing growth and preventing companies from adopting new technologies, according to a report from the Manufacturing Institute, an industry trade group. They blame the U.S. education system, and have urged the federal government to fund more vocational training. But many companies have been slow to invest in the apprenticeship model, despite its success in Europe — and in pockets of the United States.

Apprenticeship got a boost this month during German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s visit to Washington. The chief executives of German companies Siemens and BMW, which offer apprenticeship programs in South Carolina, and engineering company Schaeffler accompanied Merkel to the White House to meet with Trump. U.S. companies Salesforce, Dow Chemical, and IBM also attended.

The companies agreed to create a task force on how to expand apprenticeship opportunities in America, according to a person familiar with the discussions. Standing next to the chancellor at a news conference, Trump praised Germany’s approach, calling it “a model for highly successful apprenticeship programs.”

Apprenticeship programs, which are widespread in northern Europe, rest on the premise that it is better to start young when training people for careers in advanced manufacturing. In some countries, students as young as 12 team up with companies to get hands-on training while attending vocational school a few days per week. After graduation, these workers can apply for positions with the company that trained them or with other companies in their industry. The companies typically foot most of the bill. In Germany, companies fund 75 percent of training, while state and federal government pick up the rest.  

“European-style apprenticeship is the gold standard. It’s the best way we know to train people for skilled positions,” said Tamar Jacoby,  president of Opportunity America, a Washington nonprofit working to promote economic mobility.

The model stands in sharp contrast with the U.S. approach, which offers more senior workers targeted training rather than seeking to train younger workers with the advanced skills they need.

“You would think by now, given this long history of employers complaining about workers not having the skills they need, the light bulb might have gone off and they would adopt these kinds of programs,” said Bob Schwartz, a professor emeritus at the Harvard Graduate School of Education who studies apprenticeship programs. “There is an employer culture problem here.”

Austrian-owned Blum Inc. faced the same problems as U.S. manufacturers in 1995, when it sought to recruit workers for its new 450,000-square-foot facility in Stanley. Blum makes metal kitchen accessories and sells them to companies like IKEA as well as smaller retailers.

Because their manufacturing process is completely automated, Blum didn’t need workers to drill holes or turn screws. It needed workers who could program and fix the machines used to make its products. “We knew back then that something was missing,” said Andreas Thurner, a technical training manager for Blum.

And so the company set out to create an apprenticeship program like those in Thurner’s native Austria. It enlisted other German and Austrian companies in the area, such as Chiron America, Max Daetwyler, and Pfaff-Molds. The partnership eventually grew to include Ameritech Die & Mold, an American company.

Since the program started in 1995, it has trained hundreds of apprentices, retaining 80 percent after graduation. Five years later, 65 percent still work at a sponsoring company, Thurner said. “We basically fixed this problem,” said.

Recruitment for Apprenticeship 2000 begins during the junior year at 10 local high schools. Companies identify students with an interest in science and technology jobs, and at least a 2.8 GPA.

Those who make the cut are invited to Blum’s 4,800-square-foot training center above their factory floor. The teenagers are introduced to factory tools, given a basic math test, and tasked with several problems, including assembling a metal widget. Trainers weed out students they don’t think are right for the program. Only about four in 10 students make the cut, said Tim Ballard, a trainer at Blum’s facility.

After graduating from high school, students spend the next three years in class at the workshop and a local community college. At Blum, they study mechanics, machine design, engineering, and programming. In school, they study math and physics but also writing, social sciences, and the humanities — subjects the companies believe will improve their communication skills on the job.

Devon Stone, who graduated from the program last year, works at Blum calibrating a machine that transforms a block of metal into a complicated component used in the company’s manufacturing process. Stone chose the apprenticeship over college, partly because of the tuition cost.

Despite the program’s success, companies face obstacles attracting  students. Annual class size is small, at 12 to 20 students. Thurner said he has particular trouble recruiting women. There’s also resistance from high schools and parents who are wedded to the four-year college degree as the gold standard of educational attainment.

Still, for some, joining the program was a no-brainer. Mason Lewis, an 18-year-old high school senior who spends half his day training at the Blum workshop, said his decision was simple.

“Don’t pay for college, come out debt-free, get paid to go to school. It’s a great opportunity, so I went for it,” he said.

Photo credit: SAUL LOEB/Getty Images

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