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Manufacturing workers

Published Nov. 14, 2012

By Dana Goldstein

There are a few sectors of the economy in which there are real shortages of trained workers. Some of them require an advanced degree or high-level skills, such as in engineering or computer programming. But not all 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. There may be as many as 600,000 unfilled manufacturing jobs of this type, but compared with their European counterparts, U.S. companies have shown little willingness to invest in training workers to fill these positions.

At last a small group of employers is importing the Northern European apprenticeship model. These programs combine classroom learning, typically at community colleges, with paid work-site training, and guarantee successful graduates a job. This is the sort of meaningful, fairly compensated work experience that 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 U.S. plant in Chattanooga, Tenn., in 2010, and executives knew they wanted to launch a German-style apprenticeship program. The plant employs 3,000 people building the Passat. 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. 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 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.

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. 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.

These programs aren't perfect. The vast majority of their recruits are male. 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.

Then there is the challenge of convincing educators and parents that the slow-growth manufacturing sector is a smart bet for young people. Pam Howze, the hiring manager at Siemens' Charlotte hub, arranges plant visits for parents, students and educators. "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."