For as long as I have been interviewing companies about using apprenticeships to help close the skill gap, the discussion invariably includes the question of adapting the successful German model to the U.S. workforce.
This very topic was the subject of a recent conference, The International Skills Conference, hosted by the German American Chambers of Commerce, and held in Atlanta on Sept. 25. The conference brought together champions in apprenticeship programs, modeled after the German system, with businesses, regional and state leaders who are interested in solutions for small and middle-sized employers in order to fill the 2.4 million jobs in advanced manufacturing that will be needed by 2030.
Dr. Johann Fortwengel, who is a senior lecturer in International Management, King’s Business School, King's College London, spoke at the conference on his research in which he studied the pros and cons of collaborating with other organizations to offer apprenticeships in a network, and how this collaboration can be managed for improved efficiency.
His research found that as it’s both costly and complex for firms to run their own apprentice programs increasingly firms are interested in collaborating with each other and partners like community colleges to create apprentice schemes.
Dr. Fortwengel laid out both the pros and cons of the collaborative approach.
- Collaboration between firms on an apprentice program helps to attract applicants in a country where apprenticeships are not widespread.
- Having an apprentice network can help in attracting investment in an area – so local governments are keen to get involved.
- Firms can use the programs to up-skill their own employees and it can be an effective way to target specific groups like veterans.
- Being in a network enables members to draw on each other’s specialisms to train staff.
- A shared model can result in firms being individually less committed because the scheme hasn’t been designed specifically for them and their particular skills need. The structure and management of the scheme can help iron out these differences – for example potentially by using a third party to manage the scheme
- Firms find that there is a tension between collaborating to make the scheme work and the fact that they are often competing for the same pool of talent.
Dr. Fortwenger gave IndustryWeek his take on the current state of apprenticeship programs in the U.S.
Benjamin Franklin was an apprentice printer, but the U.S. has largely lost its tradition of apprenticeships. The U.S. now has only a little more than half a million active apprentices, very little for a country of this size.
The decline of apprenticeships in the U.S. is partly because of the downturn of the previous manufacturing base. Pushes to get more people doing four-year college degrees have also made apprenticeships and other alternatives seem inferior. But with manufacturing coming back to the US, and graduates being increasingly crushed by mountains of student debt, this picture is changing.
As a result, both the Obama Administration and the new Trump Administration have been supporting apprenticeship, and employers from coast to coast come to realize that apprenticeship is a powerful tool to help them deal with the skills gap and invest in the future talent of their business.
Many SMEs though face hurdles because implementing an apprenticeship program is complex and costly. Joining forces with other companies in the area and creating inter-firm networks is a solution here. My research shows how this enables firms to fill college classes, promote the program to interested students, and even rotate apprentices and thus benefit from the competencies of partner firms.
At a state level, we’ve seen more interest in supporting apprenticeship programs because a skilled workforce can attract investors to an area. For example, at the national level, the Obama Administration introduced the National Apprenticeship Week, which is a week set aside in November for a range of activities and events to educate students and employers alike about the benefits and promise of apprenticeship. At the state level, South Carolina offers a tax incentive for apprenticeships, which helps attract businesses into the state.
At the same time though there are tensions that need managing. The businesses in a network will have different skills needs and are all competing for the same group of talent. It’s important that there’s a mechanism to make sure that the overall program isn’t skewed towards one employer and that all the members equally invested.