Courtesy Stadler Rail
A Swiss company is bringing its apprenticeship model to Utah to build a skilled workforce for its new facility in this country.
The Swiss model, applauded by the Trump administration and broadly supported by the public, has students split time between classes and paid, on-the-job training to get skills for a specific industry.
Stadler Rail, a Swiss manufacturing company that has contracts to build trains in California and Texas, decided to replicate the apprenticeship system after finding a dearth of employees with the correct skills for its U.S. facility in Salt Lake City.
“A lot of our leadership are from Switzerland and went through those programs,” said Charlotte Thalhammer, a spokeswoman for Stadler Rail. “It just made sense.”
And while Stadler doesn't expect the program to fix its employee shortage problem, which is fueled in part by Utah's record low unemployment rates, Thalhammer said it will help them recruit a more skilled workforce. When the company opened up in Utah, little local training existed for the manufacturing skills they needed.
"It was difficult for us to find the kind of workforce that we needed," she said.
Students who are enrolled in the Salt Lake City school districts can apply for the program, called Talent Ready Apprenticeship Connection, in their junior year of high school. The application doesn't rely much on grades, Thalhammer said, but instead requires a résumé, letters of recommendation and a cover letter, as well as an interview.
"We're looking for students that are interested and that are willing to learn," she said.
Once accepted, students start the program in their senior year of high school. After graduating high school, they take classes at Salt Lake Community College while continuing to get on-the-job training from Stadler employees. While apprenticing, students will be paid up to $13 per hour.
Once they finish the apprenticeship, students will have an associate degree of applied science in advanced manufacturing, which will be recognized throughout the state of Utah. Everyone who finishes will also be eligible for full-time jobs at Stadler, Thalhammer said. Those positions would start at $22 per hour.
The pilot program currently enrolls 15 students, and student feedback is so far great, Thalhammer said.
"It’s really important to expose students to what high-tech manufacturing really looks like and what it entails," said Rick Bouillon, associate vice president of workforce and economic development at Salt Lake Community College. "This opportunity is for any student who is interested in starting their career with an advanced manufacturer like Stadler."
The program gave the college the opportunity to venture into youth apprenticeships and to work with the local school district, Bouillon said. He thinks it's important to expose students, and their parents, to these types of careers, as there's often a misperception about what modern manufacturing is.
"We’ve gone so long with an emphasis on other types of education," he said. "But this is very high-tech."
Already, the college is considering expanding the model to other industries.
Taylor White, senior policy analyst at New America, said the Utah apprenticeships are a promising development.
"What’s most exciting for me is they’re trying to smooth the pathway from high school to postsecondary education to the workforce," White said.
Americans tend to view the process of moving from school to college to work as linear, she said, which is "increasingly tenuous for lots of reasons." This model has better handoffs for students during each step along the way to a job.
Katie Spiker, director of government relations at the National Skills Coalition, said the reason the U.S. hasn't "embraced" apprenticeships is because they require robust collaboration between industry and educational institutions.
"It's something that we don't have as much support for across our country," she said.
White said that investing in an intermediary to organize the operational and strategic tasks is an important part of building a program that will succeed.
As these programs proliferate, Spiker said it will be important to provide supports so that a diverse set of students can access them. For example, if students need to move between a classroom and a work site, they will need reliable transportation.
Both Spiker and White believe this model is scalable, but Spiker pointed out that industries will have to engage adults and those not in school to truly reach out broadly. Even if every high school student in every state stayed in place and worked at a job that didn't require a four-year degree, she said, there still wouldn't be enough people to fill the demand for jobs that fall in the middle, requiring some skills but not a full bachelor's degree.