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.