Career/Tech Education

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How to adapt the German apprenticeship model to work best in the U.S.

The American industrial sector is at a crossroads. The fourth industrial revolution has ushered in automation and precision manufacturing that increasingly requires highly specialized skills. Employers, government officials and higher education leaders alike are looking for a way for workers to acquire the expertise needed for the jobs of tomorrow.

Apprenticeships are typically associated with Germany, but they are gaining steam in the U.S. After all, there are more than 500,000 Americans currently in apprenticeship programs that offer an alternative pathway to traditional higher education -- one that is capable of bridging the STEM talent gap.

What makes the apprenticeship model so effective is a mix of classroom instruction at a high school, college or university with on-the-job training. That combination is invaluable in a rapidly changing industrial community where extremely specific skill sets are required.

However, colleges, universities or employers interested in starting an apprenticeship program should be wary of simply copying the German model. The two countries’ education and training systems are too different. To be successful, the U.S. must adapt the German model. To be certain, this will require work and there may be some missteps along the way, but the long-term benefit is immense.

It used to be that coding and design software knowledge were skill sets mainly associated with office jobs. However, they’re now part and parcel of modern factory life. Because of the constant information stream from sensors in today’s smart factories and a frequent need to build precision devices, the skill sets of 2018 are far different than the industrial skill sets of 1988. Working in a smart factory requires highly specific and hard-to-obtain skills that demand both academic dexterity and long hours of on-the-job experience to master. In this environment, hands-on learning is no longer elective.

While high schools and colleges are making greater strides to integrate advanced STEM skills into curriculum, they can only train for careers in Industry 4.0 and the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) to a certain point. Apprenticeships effectively bridge the gap in the education-to-career continuum by providing students the opportunity to be in the workplace mastering complicated, ever-evolving machinery and applying critical thinking to sophisticated manufacturing processes. In addition to these technical skills, apprenticeships also provide students with the opportunity to build soft skills and develop a professional work ethic that will serve them their entire careers.

Growing up in Germany, I saw firsthand how apprenticeships opened new career pathways for my friends. It’s why I’ve been excited to see the buzz around apprenticeships get louder in the U.S., first driven by organizations like the National Skills Coalition and Jobs for the Future, and more recently after President Trump called to expand apprenticeships.

Festo Didactic, a global provider of industrial education, is working to help colleges in the U.S. to create apprenticeships that draw from the German approach but are designed to work well in this country.

For example, in cooperation with several companies and Sinclair Community College, we helped create an apprenticeship program in Mason, Ohio, that focuses on mechatronics (electronics, mechanical systems and fluid systems). The program trains participants as automation specialists and maintenance, service and manufacturing technicians and has proven to be an effective addition to the education and training of the students involved.

As we initiated the program, we took baby steps, evaluating our approach along the way. We knew we didn’t want to do a copy and paste of the German model; instead we looked to lift the components that were the best fit for the apprentices and our partners and to modify the rest. The apprentices typically spend a few hours per day at a desk gaining foundational knowledge. Then they are tasked with applying that knowledge through hands-on exercises, becoming more familiar with the equipment and complex design engineering systems.

One of the most rewarding parts of the apprenticeship program is seeing the many ways it benefits the participants and educational institutions. Apprentices in the program are earning while they learn, and they’re already in a pipeline to a well-paying job with growth opportunities. The average worker in an advanced manufacturing role typically earns $60,000 to $90,000 annually, depending on experience. Equally as beneficial, Sinclair is able to give its students a leg up, and local employers are able to source and train the best talent in the tristate Cincinnati area.

The program in Ohio, and others across the country, are microcosms of the national potential of apprenticeships. The U.S. is rapidly converting to a new type of industrial economy where automation and workflow optimization mean that low-skill and even middle-skill factory jobs are disappearing. The jobs of today and tomorrow, those born out of IIoT and Industry 4.0 innovation, are more complex and require a new approach to training. It’s estimated there will be nine million new jobs in advanced manufacturing by 2022. Some of these jobs have yet to be invented. At the same time, the manufacturing industry often feels the full weight of the skills gap and unemployment challenges.

Apprenticeship models, which have been perfected in Germany over centuries, are one of the easiest ways to resolve that talent conundrum. Those of us who have been invested in this work know these work-force training programs are effective, practical solutions benefiting all involved. But it is time to connect the individual efforts across the country into a stronger network of programs. The interest, opportunity and need are all present -- and we have a template to follow from the Germans. Now it’s up to employers, government officials and education leaders to join forces to create an apprenticeship culture that is authentically American.

Author/s: 
Thomas Lichtenberger

Thomas Lichtenberger is CEO of Festo Didactic Inc., a global provider of equipment and solutions for industrial education.

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Engineer and apprentice with steel rolls
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Trump used wrong word when he talked about 'vocational' education, but he made a valid point (opinion)

By now, most Americans are used to President Trump using words that, if not inappropriate, are quite wrong. It’s clear he’s a far cry from his idol, the great communicator, with speeches that are varyingly at a fourth-grade vocabulary level or read off the teleprompter at a protracted pace.

So when the id of forgotten America says he wants community colleges to be more “vocational,” he’s using the wrong word. But he does have a point.

“Vocational” is the wrong word because most people interpret vocational education as training for a building or industrial trade involving working with one’s hands. And while these jobs are critical and admirable, there are two problems.

First, while President Trump might want millions of displaced workers trained in building trades -- perhaps to help build hotels and golf courses, or maybe gaudy monuments to our 45th president -- labor economists don’t. While there are shortages in certain trades, none are projected to be among the fastest-growing job categories in the next decade; the 21st-century economy won’t be built on the backs of welders and electricians.

The second reason, of course, is that while policy makers -- including Trump, who included a love song to welders in his first State of the Union address last month -- love to talk about training welders and electricians, talking about “vocational” training as the alternative to college only serves to reify and deify college in the minds of America’s successful and aspiring families.

Few parents who attended college and work in white-collar jobs are excited about sending their offspring down an educational path that leads to manual labor. The same is true of parents who haven’t achieved the American dream but want it for their children; choosing between a profession and a vocation for their children is no choice at all. All of which serves to put college on an even higher pedestal.

As usual, Trump’s choice of words undermines his objective. His administration believes we urgently need a multitude of pathways to good jobs, not a single four-year pathway. And if faster and cheaper alternatives to college are essential for Generation Z to avoid the same crises of debt and underemployment that befell their millennial brethren, it turns out they’re just as important to many older Trump voters.

***

In her superb 2017 book, Janesville, Washington Post staff writer Amy Goldstein documents the aftermath of the 2008 closing of the GM plant in Janesville, Wis. The plant had been in town since World War I, and with the network of suppliers and businesses that served GM and its workers, the closing was an economic catastrophe for House Speaker Paul Ryan’s hometown.

For me, the most stunning scenes involved displaced workers funneled by the local work-force board to Blackhawk Technical College, Janesville’s community college, and the universal expectation that workers requiring retraining had to return to a classroom. Blackhawk does its best to accommodate the flood of newly unemployed adult learners, but it’s not a good fit for most: “As he enters his first class this morning -- psychology -- Mike is worried. Does he really know how to study? Can he write a research paper? Will he be able to use Word on a computer?”

According to Goldstein, “of the laid-off workers who arrived at the college in the fall of 2008 … nearly half left without finishing what they’d begun.” The completion rate was lower -- approximately one-third -- for those who enrolled in associate-degree programs.

Although Blackhawk tries “like hell,” it shouldn’t be a surprise that men and women who worked for decades on a GM assembly line aren’t thrilled at the prospect of sitting in a psychology class. It’s hard enough to educate adults in a college environment. Students need to be motivated to return to campus. But Janesville’s displaced workers were more disgruntled than motivated. Most had lost confidence in their economic future and their own capabilities. Then they’re told by the work-force board that the only pathway requires returning to an environment they last experienced as a teenager -- an environment they perceive as infantilizing. It’s a recipe for dropouts.

According to Opportunity@Work, there are at least 10 million American workers who need reskilling right now. Based on exit polls from the 2016 election, most who voted pulled the lever for Donald Trump. So although Trump says “vocational,” it’s entirely valid to express frustration at the classroom monoculture of our postsecondary system.

All students care about getting good jobs -- displaced workers doubly so. (In Janesville, one student drops as soon as his instructor levels with him that there actually aren’t many jobs for graduates of his program.) It’s generally the case that the more you’re in a classroom, the further you are from employers and jobs. The inverse is equally true: the further you are from the classroom, the closer you are to employers.

What kinds of postsecondary programs are far from the traditional classroom? Trump’s vocational programs, for sure. But also a wide range of faster, cheaper pathways to good digital jobs that run in workplace-like environments. Galvanize programs run in co-working spaces, alongside hundreds of hiring companies. Revature students work business hours and wear business attire. (Note: both Galvanize and Revature are University Ventures portfolio companies.) Techtonic Academy students work on real client projects and begin billing time as early as early as week five or six. While these examples are in software development, we are actively backing similar models across a wide range of industries and job functions -- anywhere the skills gap can be remedied through last-mile training.

It’s always easier to sit students in a classroom and talk at them. My mother taught at a community college for over 30 years, and -- ask anyone -- she loves to talk. But adult learners -- particularly displaced workers -- are almost always better served in workplace settings. Project-based learning is good. Real projects from real clients who’ll ultimately hire students (or who may have already done so, as with apprenticeship programs) are even better.

I’m not saying there's no role for classrooms; many concepts are best conveyed and mastered in a classroom environment, particularly classrooms set up for active learning. But we’re unlikely to engage those in greatest need of reskilling if classrooms are the sole, or even initial, modality. Of course, the other problem with classrooms is the bureaucratic baggage built up over decades. The forms, financing, offices. Tell one of the Janesville protagonists that he needs to visit the bursar's office, and he’d either roll his eyes or run away screaming. The apparatus surrounding much college-based retraining could not be less conducive to those who need it most.

Employers aren’t going to do the work to establish these workplace settings. Few colleges and universities want to. But higher education has to do the work to create more workplace-like learning environments. Because that’s what millions of displaced workers need today, and what tens of millions more will need tomorrow as technological change accelerates.

The closure of Janesville’s GM plan was such a sudden, singular event that the story could be told in concise form by a newspaper reporter. But gradually, the same story has happened across many parts of America you probably don’t spend much time in. Education can't stop industries and companies from losing their competitive edge and going out of business. But it’s our responsibility to help the people affected. Telling every single one of them that their only pathway runs through a college classroom is unimaginative, irresponsible and borderline sadistic. It's as though half the country is starving, and our national policy is that they need to sit in a classroom and learn etiquette before we allow them to eat.

So this is what I think Trump means when he says “vocational.” Then again, maybe he knows better. It could be the case that, in addition to the other social tensions he's stoked for political purposes, he’s just trying to rile up welders and electricians.

Ryan Craig is managing director of University Ventures and author of the upcoming A New U: Faster + Cheaper Alternatives to College.

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Opening more occupations to apprenticeships could mean more job opportunities

New research indicates more job opportunities would be available if apprenticeships were expanded across more fields.

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