The Hive

The Apprentice

How manufacturers and community colleges are teaming up—German-style—to create high-paying factory jobs.

Inside Volkswagen's Chattanooga plant, which manufactures the Passat.
At Volkswagen’s Chattanooga, Tenn., plant, some computer robotics workers come through a German-style apprenticeship program created in partnership with a local community college.

Courtesy Volkswagen Chattanooga.

This month, Slate is exploring how to reinvent American manufacturing. We’d like to hear your best ideas for that! Please submit them here.

Unemployment among workers without a college degree is at a staggering 24 percent, but young college grads without an advanced degree are also suffering from the worst jobs crisis since World War II, with about 19 percent out of work or underemployed for their level of education. Is it fair to ask American schools to respond to the Great Recession? Great teachers and principals can help students maximize their potential, but they can’t make firms hire workers.

But the education system is not powerless in the face of high unemployment—as long as employers are partners. What’s clear is that there are a few, relatively small sectors of the economy in which there are real shortages of trained workers. Some of those sectors require an advanced degree or very high-level skills, such as in engineering or computer programming. But not all of them do. One of these sectors is mid-skill manufacturing. There is a shortage of machinists who can operate the new, computer-programmed, robotic assembly lines that build cars, turbines, generators, steel and iron plumbing products, armaments, and shipping and packing equipment. There may be as many as 600,000 unfilled manufacturing jobs of this type, but compared with their European counterparts, American companies have shown little willingness to invest in training workers to fill these positions.

At last a small group of employers are importing the Northern European apprenticeship model to the United States. These programs combine classroom learning, typically at community colleges, with paid worksite training, and guarantee successful graduates a job. This is the sort of meaningful, fairly compensated work experience that is almost impossible to come by in our loosely regulated American internship culture yet is built into the educational systems of nations like Germany and Switzerland, where youth unemployment is far lower than it is in the United States.

Volkswagen opened its first American plant in Chattanooga, Tenn., in 2010, and executives knew from the start they wanted to launch a German-style apprenticeship program alongside it. The plant employs 3,000 people building the Passat, Motor Trend’s 2012 “car of the year.” Volkswagen saw a shortage of mid-skill machinists, workers who perform maintenance on robotic welders and other state-of-the-art manufacturing tools. The three-year apprenticeship program, Volkswagen Academy, is a partnership between VW and Chattanooga State Community College. Built to address that need for regular plant maintenance, it enrolls about 20 students per year. The college screens for students’ math and reading skills, and VW administers a test in which applicants read diagrams, assemble car parts, and install a dashboard. They are also given a personality test, a background check, and a drug screening. There are three applicants for every available slot.

Apprentices spend five trimesters in the classroom and lab, and four trimesters working for Volkswagen, earning between $10 and $13 per hour. Of the program’s first group of recruits, about 60 percent are expected to graduate in 2013 and will be guaranteed a job at Volkswagen. According to Chattanooga State, most of the student attrition was caused by family responsibilities and financial stress, which drive much of the dropout rate across the American community college system.

Volkswagen's Chattanooga plant.

Volkswagen’s Chattanooga plant.

Courtesy Volkswagen Chattanooga.

Indeed, a three-year program can be a tough sell to working-class students, who tend to be eager to earn a full-time salary. In 1995, North Carolina’s Central Piedmont Community College launched Apprenticeship 2000 to provide trainees for several German-based manufacturers with plants in the region, such as Siemens and Blum. But the four-year, European-style program, which begins in high school, was too long and rigid for some of the area’s employers. A new program, Apprenticeship Charlotte, will enroll both young adults and mid-career workers. Companies will be able to choose whether their apprentices earn a three-year associate degree or a more streamlined certification in a particular technical field. The apprentices will earn a wage for their on-the-job training, and their school fees will be paid for by the host companies.

In Maine, employers, community colleges, and philanthropists partnered to launch Future for ME, with the goal of training workers for 1,000 unfilled, mid-skill manufacturing jobs. Recruits will earn a two-year associate degree and then work as machinists for small companies such as Mountain Machine Works, which uses recycled materials to make caps for Poland Spring water bottles, and General Dynamics ATP, an aerospace and weapons contractor. A separate, one-year program is set to train workers in robotic textile manufacturing for companies like L.L. Bean and Atayne, which makes running clothes out of recycled plastic.

These programs aren’t perfect. The vast majority of their recruits are male, a problem when so many working-class women are stuck in pink-collar jobs that pay below a living wage. And they tend to be clustered in right-to-work Southern states, where manufacturing jobs no longer provide the benefits and security they once did.

There is also the challenge of convincing educators and parents that the slow-growth manufacturing sector is a smart bet for young people who’ve been told since birth that a four-year college degree is the safest path into the middle class. Pam Howze, the hiring manager at Siemens’ Charlotte hub, arranges plant visits for parents, students, and educators, with the goal of debunking those misconceptions. “Usually they have no idea a factory looks like this,” she says. “They thought it was going to be dark and dirty and hot, and it’s not. Our factory is clean, air-conditioned, light, and highly automated. They see that technology and they’re pretty excited about it.”

This month, Slate is exploring how to reinvent American manufacturing. We’d like to hear your best ideas for that! Please submit them here.