by Bob Zaruta, President/CEO, NWIRC

photo of VEM, manufacturing cooperative training facility in Koblenz , Germany
VEM, manufacturing cooperative training facility in Koblenz, Germany

Beeinddrückend! (German for ‘wow’ or ‘impressive’). I had set the bar high for the Stronger Together Manufacturing Workforce Mission and the trip…well, hat alle Erwartungen übertroffen (exceeded all expectations)!

As I wrote last month, the purpose of this initiative was the sharing of best practices in vocational training between Germany and the United States. The project was coordinated by Matt Fieldman, America Works/MAGNET, part of the Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MEP) National Network, in collaboration with the American Council on Germany. Robert Fenstermacher, Chief Content Officer for the American Council on Germany, not only put together an amazing itinerary but was our guide, mentor, and interpreter.

Before I share some highlights and perspectives, consider these numbers pertaining to the Vocational Education and Training (VET) in Germany: 325 recognized training occupations; 800,000 participants in career orientation programs; 50% of employees in occupation-related continuing education and training; and 520,000 new training contracts each year (all new apprentices enter a contract with an employer prior to starting their apprenticeship). Clearly, the German VET (apprenticeship) engine, built a long time ago and routinely modernized and expanded to serve changing times, works well to attract and develop skilled employees.

Now to our travels and learnings. In Bonn, our 17-person American delegation from 10 different states saw first-hand the highly structured, well-coordinated, and proven German system of apprenticeships that is world-renowned. We visited the Federal Institute for Vocational Education and Training, the organization that conducts research and collaborates with industry, trade associations and unions to innovate, develop, and modernize curriculum along with establishing standards for teaching and testing for the entire country. Whether you are an apprentice or an employer in Munich, Berlin, or somewhere else in Germany, you know the training received and exams taken are standardized and credentials earned are nationally recognized.

In Koblenz, we visited the IHK Chamber of Industry and Commerce. There we learned about the critical role and responsibilities this Chamber and others in Germany perform including the monitoring of companies’ training standards, administering apprentices’ mid-term and final exams, and certifying credentials for all occupations. We visited two very large registered cooperative training facilities, VEM in Koblenz and ILW in Mainz. With our group’s primary focus on the manufacturing industry, it was great to see hundreds of apprentices at various phases of their apprenticeships engaging in their practical training across multiple disciplines including industrial mechanics, electronics and mechatronics, CNC operations, plastics technology, and other areas of technical development. These and other similar registered training facilities are where many small, medium-sized, and even larger companies that don’t have their own internal resources send their apprentices for training. We also visited 3 manufacturers with in-house apprenticeship programs whereby the apprentices receive their technical and on-the-job training at the company and attend offsite classroom training provided by a vocational school as part of their mandatory secondary education, all part of their apprenticeship program.

Photo of NWIRC’s Bob Zaruta with others from the workforce mission to Germany pictured with apprentices in Germany.
NWIRC’s Bob Zaruta with others from the workforce mission to Germany pictured with apprentices in Germany.

Throughout these stops we were able to meet and interview several apprentices to gain their perspectives and understand their motivations. Certainly, the ability to be trained at no cost (no school debt), get paid while in the classroom as well as when at work, and the opportunity to develop skills and achieve recognized credentials leading to career advancement helped answer the question for apprentices, “What’s in it for them”? Through our conversations, we had the opportunity to help answer a second important question…Why do they (apprentices) care to be in an apprenticeship?

Here are seven things we heard repeatedly from the apprentices: 1) the practical training is more exciting than just classroom theory; 2) getting hands-on experience making real things adds meaning to the learning; 3) using advanced manufacturing technologies is exciting, 4) having a variety of work on the job to perform as opposed to mundane work; 5) being challenged to solve problems; 6) feeling proud of their involvement in something bigger, and
7) bragging to their family and friends what they’re doing and where they’re going.

Despite the long history of success with the VET (apprenticeship) system, Germany is facing the same labor shortages and the challenges of recruiting the next generation of skilled workers that we face here in the United States. Demographics have changed and the general population is declining as young adults are having fewer or no children. Couple that with an aging workforce and projected attrition due to retirement. Add a gradual, but steady, increase in the number of young people pursuing the college/university path in place of the work/apprenticeship path, and the issue magnifies.

When I think of the common challenges both countries face, along with the learning and insights from my trip, what comes to mind is the famous, often-misquoted, line “If you build it, they will come” (actual quote is ‘he will come’) from the movie, Field of Dreams. The well-built and finely tuned system in Germany continues to register a half million plus new apprentices each year. In the United States, there exists many well-structured, formal registered apprenticeship programs available for individuals to choose from for a successful career. Unfortunately, while these apprenticeships exist and work well today and pave the way for the future, they are not attracting the number of people that are needed for today’s and the future’s skilled workforce. A crisis is looming there and here.

Upon returning, I joined my Stronger Together colleagues on a Zoom webinar to share our learning and experiences with about 130 colleagues from around the MEP National Network. To conclude the meeting, the final question asked to each of us was… “What are you bringing back to your local ecosystem to influence workforce development in your region/state”? I responded that we need to prioritize the challenge of recruiting the next generation of manufacturing talent and use the primary market intel gathered to develop effective messaging that can more effectively reach the targeted audience. Like Germany, we need to create more opportunities for young people to be exposed to various careers and to participate in internships, or some other real work practical experience. The latter, for NWIRC of course, pertains to the Student-Run Manufacturing Enterprise (SRME) programs we are helping numerous school districts explore, develop, and launch. Germany has inspired me to gain more knowledge about pre-apprenticeship programs and evaluate the potential of adding this component to the SRME model for additional credentialing and credit towards apprenticeship programs. I have already engaged in preliminary discussions for future collaboration with Rachel Mauer, President of the Germany American Chamber of Commerce located in Pittsburgh; Tami Adams, Executive Director of Northwestern PA Chapter of the National Tooling & Machining Association (NTMA); and others. I look forward to continuing conversations and efforts to attract talent into manufacturing opportunities.