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Apprenticeship? In South Carolina?! The Model Used by Germans, Unions Could Save Floundering States

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On Sunday, the New York Times revealed the positive effects the German model of apprenticeship is having in South Carolina. Yes, that South Carolina.  

Using Tognum America as an example, the article explains how coordinating with local high schools and technical schools has ensured waves of trained workers while creating much-needed job opportunities.  In America, apprenticeship has dramatically fallen over the years in part because of falling union membership rates.  But some companies are beginning to turn to the German model of apprenticeship, thus bringing unions — and their vehement support of training — into the light.  

The NYT article focuses on Joerg Klisch who had trouble hiring a second wave of workers in Tognum America’s South Carolina plant:

Working with five local high schools and a career center in Aiken County, S.C. — and a curriculum nearly identical to the one at the company’s headquarters in Friedrichshafen — Tognum now has nine juniors and seniors enrolled in its apprenticeship program.

Inspired by a partnership between schools and industry that is seen as a key to Germany’s advanced industrial capability and relatively low unemployment rate, projects like the one at Tognum are practically unheard-of in the United States.

But experts in government and academia, along with those inside companies like BMW, which has its only American factory in South Carolina, say apprenticeships are a desperately needed option for younger workers who want decent-paying jobs, or increasingly, any job at all. And without more programs like the one at Tognum, they maintain, the nascent recovery in American manufacturing will run out of steam for lack of qualified workers.

As noted in an apprenticeship report from the Center for American Progress, the number of American apprenticeships has fallen by 40 percent since 2008.  President Obama has called for an increased effort to revitalize programs, specifically citing the German model, but critics say he is moving too slow.  Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez recently called for a renewed focus on apprenticeship programs:

“As a nation, over the course of the last couple of decades, we have regrettably and mistakenly devalued apprenticeships and training.  We need to change that, and you will hear the president talk a lot about it in the weeks and months ahead.”

As explained by NYT, the German model is mostly funded by employers.  Firsthand success in South Carolina has added monetary incentives for companies stateside.

In Germany, apprentices divide their time between classroom training in a public vocational school and practical training at a company or small firm. Some 330 types of apprenticeships are accredited by the government in Berlin, including such jobs as hairdresser, roofer and automobile electronics specialist. About 60 percent of German high school students go through some kind of apprenticeship program, which leads to a formal certificate in the chosen skill and often a permanent job at the company where the young person trained.

If there is a downside to the German system, it is that it can be inflexible, because a person trained in a specific skill may find it difficult to switch vocations if demand shifts.

In South Carolina, apprenticeships are mainly funded by employers, but the state introduced a four-year, annual tax credit of $1,000 per position in 2007 that proved to be a boon for small- to medium-size companies. The Center for American Progress report recommends a similar credit nationwide that would rise to $2,000 for apprentices under age 25.

Apprenticeship allows training that boosts earning potential so workers can become vital cogs in the middle class.  It also ensures that companies have a deep pool of potential workers when seeking to expand.  States that have shunned unions and their apprenticeships, such as South Carolina, are now looking to recreate this model in order to revitalize their economies.  

Read the NYT article in its entirety here.


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