Apprenticeships: An old idea findsa new purpose

New York TimesDecember 8, 2013 

— For Joerg Klisch, hiring the first 60 workers to build heavy engines at his company’s new factory in South Carolina was easy. Finding the next 60 was not so simple.

“It seemed like we had sucked up everybody who knew about diesel engines,” said Klisch, vice president for North American operations of Tognum America. “It wasn’t working as we had planned.”

So Klisch did what he would have done back home in Germany: He set out to train them himself. Working with five local high schools and a career center in Aiken County — and a curriculum nearly identical to the one at the company’s headquarters in Friedrichshafen — Tognum now has nine juniors and seniors enrolled in its apprenticeship program.

Inspired by a partnership between schools and industry that is seen as a key to Germany’s advanced industrial capability and relatively low unemployment rate, projects like the one at Tognum are practically unheard-of in the United States.

But experts in government and academia, along with those inside companies like BMW, which has its only U.S. factory in South Carolina, say apprenticeships are a desperately needed option for younger workers who want decent-paying jobs, or increasingly, any job at all. And without more programs like the one at Tognum, they maintain, the nascent recovery in U.S. manufacturing will run out of steam for lack of qualified workers.

“South Carolina offers a fantastic model for what we can do nationally,” said Ben Olinsky, co-author of a report by the Center for American Progress, a liberal Washington research organization, recommending a vast expansion in apprenticeships.

Despite South Carolina’s progress and the public support for apprenticeships from President Barack Obama, who cited the German model in his last State of the Union address, these positions are becoming harder to find in other states. Since 2008, the number of apprentices has fallen by nearly 40 percent, according to the Center for American Progress study.

“As a nation, over the course of the last couple of decades, we have regrettably and mistakenly devalued apprenticeships and training,” said Thomas E. Perez, the secretary of labor. “We need to change that, and you will hear the president talk a lot about it in the weeks and months ahead.”

In November, the White House announced a new $100 million grant program aimed at advancing technical training in high schools. But veteran apprenticeship advocates say the Obama administration has been slow to act.

“The results have not matched the rhetoric in terms of direct funding for apprenticeships so far,” said Robert Lerman, a professor of economics at American University in Washington. “I’m hoping for a new push.”

In South Carolina, apprenticeships are mainly funded by employers, but the state introduced a four-year, annual tax credit of $1,000 per position in 2007 that proved to be a boon for small- to medium-size companies. The Center for American Progress report recommends a similar credit nationwide that would rise to $2,000 for apprentices younger than 25.

The emphasis on job training also has been a major calling card overseas for South Carolina officials, who lured BMW here two decades ago and more recently persuaded France’s Michelin and Germany’s Continental Tire to expand in the state.

“The European influence is huge,” said Brad Neese, director of Apprenticeship Carolina, which links the state’s technical college system with private companies to help create specialized programs. “They are our strongest partners.”

European companies are major employers in the state, with more than 28,000 workers for German companies alone. The influx has helped stanch much of the bleeding caused by the decades-long erosion of jobs in the textile industry, once the economic bulwark of the Palmetto state.

Of course, there are other reasons foreign companies have moved here. For starters, wages are lower than the national average. Even more important for many manufacturers, unions have made few inroads in South Carolina.

Still, the close cooperation between employers and the state educational system is unusual, and despite initial skepticism on both sides, apprenticeship opportunities are rapidly expanding both for high-school age students and for older workers.

Apprenticeship Carolina started in 2007 with 777 students at 90 companies. It now has 4,500 students at more than 600 companies in the state, with the typical apprentice in his or her late 20s. Neese’s goal is to have 2,000 companies by 2020.

Here in Greer, where more than 7,000 employees produce more than 300,000 SUVs and other luxury cars a year in a sprawling, ultramodern BMW factory, Richard Morris, vice president for assembly and logistics, identifies one of the company’s biggest problems: a serious shortage of medium-skilled workers who specialize in mechatronics, or repairing robots and metal presses when they break down and operating the computers that dot the paint shop, body shop and assembly shop. Not only do these jobs pay better than typical assembly-line positions, they also open up avenues for advancement.

“It is a struggle, but if you know how to manage the time, it is not hard,” said Benjamin Peoples, a BMW Scholar who dropped out of Clemson University.

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