Peter Feil sees apprenticeships not just as a way to fill skilled jobs in rural communities—he sees them as a savior for small towns.
With Millennials more likely to relocate to urban areas than their generational predecessors, “anything we can do to provide opportunities and convince kids to stay is going to be critical for maintaining any kind of industry,” says Feil, who heads U.S. operations for German gearbox and motor maker Stober Drives. “The more kids we can retain, the more businesses will thrive. Every kid we lose is a lifetime worker that’s not going to be in our town."
Stober USA, which has around 120 employees, is located in Maysville, Ky., a town of 9,000 about an hour’s drive from both Cincinnati and Lexington, Ky. The company has hosted 32 apprentices since it launched the program 10 years ago, including 16 current apprentices.
“We feel a responsibility as a leader in the community to do everything we can to promote these programs and to market them and to lead by example and get others to follow,” says Feil “We feel it’s an ethical and moral obligation, because we don’t want to see our community die.”
Feil, who along with leading Stober’s apprenticeship program also recently got a local chapter of KY FAME off the ground after many years of trying, shared what he’s learned about apprenticeship success.
You were born in Germany, raised in the U.S. and worked in Germany, and your parent company is in Germany.
Yes, we’re an 80-year-old company that was started near the Black Forest. We’ve been in the U.S. 25 years. About 50% of kids go through apprenticeships in Germany and only 3 to 5 % in the U.S., so we have a long way to go in this country to catch up.
What sort of apprenticeships do you have?
They’re in anything from machining to maintenance. We also have accounting apprentices. Electrical, marketing, industrial engineering. Quality engineer.
The state of Kentucky certifies our program, but not all of our positions are certified. For instance, our marketing apprenticeship is not certified in the state of Kentucky [because the state doesn't have certification in that field]. The machinist is. So that doesn’t stop us; we just do it on our own.
How are the apprenticeships set up?
The average age of our apprentices is 29. The goal typically is to hire them straight out of high school, but we have so many people applying for our apprenticeships, who have been working and are maybe more mature, and they’re looking to either come to our company or change career directions. So we’ve had 43-year-old apprentices as well as 18-year-olds.
That’s very different from the German approach.
Correct. When you get somebody very qualified that’s 40 years old, why should they not get that job? In Germany it’s different because so many people go that route [in high school.] It’s just the fact that their program is mature and well-established.
So are all of your apprenticeships set up similarly?
They are. It’s a four-year program. If somebody comes in and has prior college credits and work experience, they can reduce that four years to two years. They take two classes per semester. They’re certified journeymen through the state of Kentucky Department of Labor, plus they earn their associate’s degree.
Do you have trainers on site?
We have mentors who take care of the in-house part of the education. And they go to local community college for their classroom training.
What areas of the skilled trades are they apprenticing in?
Machinist, electrical, maintenance, assembly and then we have others like quality, marketing, manufacturing engineering, industrial engineering.
What are the challenges of finding apprentices in a rural area?
When we first started our program 10 years ago, we tried to get other companies to join us because the community college would love to have other people in those programs. We were successful with one company—they hired a couple of maintenance apprentices. But we weren’t really successful in getting other companies to join. So we started our own program.
Our biggest fear was that we wouldn’t be able to find the educational portion at [Maysville Technical and Community College], but the school bent over backwards for whatever we needed. Even if we had one customer service apprentice position, they would create a curriculum for that one person.
The accreditation is slowly coming; we found the internal mentors and our leadership team committed to doing it. It was much easier than we feared it might be.
Has the community’s attitude toward apprenticeships changed?
That’s in progress. But the fact we are investing in people has made us a much more attractive employer. It’s made us the more preferred employer in our community. Other companies are seeing that and saying, “Wow, my employees are interested in working at Stober; how do I combat that?”
Well, my answer to that is always invest in your people. Do an apprenticeship program, do tuition reimbursement, do leadership training. Do all these things to grow your people and they will want to stay with you, and the people who aren’t working there will want to work for you.
It’s simple. You treat people well, and they want to work for you. I call it the “virtuous cycle.” The more you invest in people, the better and more successful your business is. And you have more growth and more profit, and you can do more for people.
Was it your experience with the German apprenticeship system that made you a believer in apprenticeships here in the States?
I guess the exposure to apprenticeships in Germany certainly was an influence. And then the fact that we’re a German company and about 7% of our entire workforce in Germany is apprenticeships. They must have 50 apprentices over there in their company at a time.
Do you have any advice for employers in rural communities who want to start an apprenticeship program?
First of all, make the decision to do it. What tipped the scales for us was a discussion in a strategic planning session about “How are we going to be sustainable ten years from now when we have trouble finding skilled workers?” And we decided, “Hey we’re in the power transmission and motion control business, but to be sustainable, we also need to be in the people development business.”
Once you’ve decided, go to your state department of labor, ask for what’s available and benchmark other programs. There aren’t many of them, but they exist. Benchmark them, learn from others and then do it. It’s not particularly difficult. But you do need to find an education partner like a community college that’s willing to support what you’re doing. That’s absolutely key.