This article originally appeared in ThomasNet News Career Journal.
Throughout world history, people have been transferring skills from one generation to another through some form of apprenticeship. Over the past few decades, however, we have experienced a diminished ability to pass down legacy knowledge that is specific to the many trades in manufacturing and some might say that as a result, we’ve lost the will to conduct such vocational programs here in the U.S.
In early September, I had the opportunity to tour Austria’s Vocational Education and Training (VET) programs, otherwise known as dual training or apprenticeship programs, as a guest of the Austrian Trade Commission’s commemoration of The Marshall Plan. I extended my tour into Switzerland to visit dual training programs there with SwissMEM and Kaiser Tooling. I found similar programs in both countries, and since then I’ve been giving a lot of thought to how we could replicate a comparable model in the U.S. again.
The U.S. education system is more focused on generating high school graduates who can go on to receive a college education than preparing students for a career in manufacturing. As a result, we have a high student loan debt load; poor performance in the percentage of college students who graduate in four years (if at all); and since the financial crisis beginning in 2007, chronic unemployment or under-employment of our nation’s college graduates. Their degrees simply don’t match the needs of most employers in many industries.
The focus on four-year college degrees limits the choices for those who are often described as “mechanically inclined” or “good at working with their hands.” All too often, that description serves as a euphemism for “we don’t know where they fit, but they aren’t college material.” As a result of a mismatch in choice for these young people, too many students drop out of high school, especially those in heavily urban communities.
In Austria, as in Switzerland, after the equivalent of ninth grade year is completed, students are given a choice to either prepare for a university education or choose a VET track. They are assisted in their decision based on school performance, aptitude testing, and open job availability.
The dual training systems result in a very low unemployment rate — about 5%. The unemployment rate among the youth (up to 24) in these countries is much lower than in the U.S. as well.
In Austria, at age 15, nearly 50% of students begin a paid apprenticeship program. The other 50% remain in school in preparation for university. For the VET track, more than 200 skilled trades have been identified through a coalition of government, businesses, trade unions and schools. Students who choose a skilled trade are matched to employers by choice, and for the most part, the apprentices work at a company four days a week and go to school one day a week during the four years of their apprenticeship program.
Apprenticeship education begins with the fundamentals of using hand tools, measuring instruments, manual machines, etc., as well as computer design, solid modeling and rapid prototyping using 3D printing.
What is Europe’s “secret sauce” in encouraging young people to participate in apprenticeship programs? It’s not because there is a better perception about careers in manufacturing in Europe. Many parents in Europe want their kids to go to university, just like parents, policy-makers and administrators in the U.S. But there is more awareness about skilled trades, because these programs are driven from the top down.
From my perspective, Europe is better at bringing the next generation into skilled trade programs through these dual training programs because they focus on doing it at the local community level. Schools and companies work in partnership with trade unions to design and accredit the programs around real local needs.
It’s possible for the U.S. to adapt similar strategies and methods here if we also approach this from a local level. High school students already have the opportunity to enter a community college advanced manufacturing technology dual credit program in their junior year. By the time they complete their senior year, they can fulfill the first-year requirements for their associate’s degree and complete their degree in one additional full year at the community college while participating in an internship with a local manufacturing company.
For those students who wish to continue toward a bachelor’s degree, they can maintain an overall lower cost of their education by continuing their four-year degree through a tuition reimbursement plan with their employer.
We are already seeing these dual credit programs succeeding in many states, and the key is for manufacturing companies to collaborate locally with their high schools, vocational schools, STEM academies and community colleges to make it work. AMT-The Association For Manufacturing Technology is a partner with the National Coalition of Advanced Technology Centers, a group of nearly 200 community colleges across the U.S. that have terrific advanced manufacturing technology programs.
The Obama Administration has also expanded grants through the Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career Training grant program to strengthen employer partnerships.
The U.S. manufacturing industry, as well as our educational system, could benefit from taking a page from the European playbook and adapting it to suit our needs. It’s my hope that we can see more coordination between government, business, and academia toward strengthening and improving this type of collaboration for the benefit of students and, ultimately, our overall industry.