Apprenticeships: Lost In Translation?

Reacting to news that “the Obama administration is about to announce $100 million worth of apprenticeship grants – and wants to spend another $6 billion over the next four years,” Tamar Jacoby considers whether German-style apprenticeships would work in the US:

The first thing you notice about German apprenticeships: The employer and the employee still respect practical work. German firms don’t view dual training as something for struggling students or at-risk youth. “This has nothing to do with corporate social responsibility,” an HR manager at Deutsche Bank told the group I was with, organized by an offshoot of the Goethe Institute. “I do this because I need talent.” So too at Bosch. …

The second thing you notice:

Both employers and employees want more from an apprenticeship than short-term training. Our group heard the same thing in plant after plant: We’re teaching more than skills. “In the future, there will be robots to turn the screws,” one educator told us. “We don’t need workers for that. What we need are people who can solve problems”—skilled, thoughtful, self-reliant employees who understand the company’s goals and methods and can improvise when things go wrong or when they see an opportunity to make something work better.

But there’s a catch:

Why is it likely to be hard for Americans to transplant the German model? It starts with cost. Each German company has a different way of calculating the bill, but the figures range from $25,000 per apprentice to more than $80,000. It’s likely to be more expensive still in the U.S., where firms will have to build programs from scratch, pay school tuition (in Germany, the state pays), and in many cases funnel money into local high schools and community colleges to transform them into effective training partners.

Update from a reader:

Actually, I think we are evolving something akin to German apprenticeships in the US, at least for some fields. We just don’t call them that. Mostly, we call them “interns.” But the function can be very similar:

  • take someone who doesn’t know much about the work that your organization does but is interested in learning.
  • bring them on board (probably for very little money) and start teaching them what you do.
  • get them to the point where they can be a productive member of the team.

Granted, there are organizations that use “interns” as simply no-cost low-skill temporary labor. But there are also some (I work for one) that are using the position to create people who can do things that we have difficulty hiring skilled staff to do. Done right, it’s a win for the individual – she learns skills that she didn’t have before, and which are in demand in the job market. And it is a win for the company as well – we get someone who has skills we need and have difficulty finding, and who knows how our corporate culture works as well. With a little luck, we get to keep them for several years after they become fully trained.

Would we be delighted to have the state pay for the training, on the German model? Of course. But it is still worth our while to do it at our own expense.