Turning Point

When I first started in the metalworking industry, some 35 years ago, I worked for a major machine tool builder here in Cincinnati: Cincinnati Milacron.

Part of the training I received was from an in-house staff of instructors. These positions were full time, and the training department was well equipped with turning, milling and grinding machines as well as metrology and control simulators.
Our curriculum was a combination of classroom instruction and shop floor, hands on, machine tool operation. In fact, an employee could go through the entire program, which tallied up to 8,000 hours of training. This was equivalent of a college degree for those who completed the courses.

Many of the company’s managers, superintendents and executives were graduates of this program. This extensive education program ensured a steady supply of well trained employees to help move the company forward.  

I recently visited Germany at the behest of Index and Traub to visit their plants in and around Esslingen. We also visited some of their customers along with machining center builder Heller, Hainbuch the workholding specialist, and measurement equipment maker, Zoller.

Besides the high quality German manufacturing that was on display in each facility, the tours included apprenticeship programs that all of these companies participate in. Index has around 130 apprentices and interns at any given time.

When my former company folded its apprenticeship program some years ago, the reason given was that many of the trained people were being “poached” by competitors. I asked about this in Germany and was told that because these programs are so widespread, “poaching” is less of a problem.

Interestingly, every OEM and shop we visited had some form of apprenticeship or intern program. These were scaled to the size of the business, but they participate.

The apparent universality of these programs made me wonder: Could our lack of apprenticeship and intern programs be a source of our skilled labor shortages here in the U.S.? It seems to me that the German system works to alleviate much of this issue.

I did a little research and found that Germany has what they call a dual system of vocational training. Around 60 percent of its young people participate. It’s a cooperative system between the state vocational schools and private companies.

The companies provide practical skills based on the job training that is augmented by theoretical instruction at the vocational schools. There are approximately 350 nationally recognized training occupations, of which 270 are in the fields of industry, trades and services.

In my travels to Germany, I have had many trips through the years, and it never ceases to amaze me how accepting the culture is of these vocational school students.

I disagree with the notion we seem to have here that anything short of a college degree is somehow a sign of failure. I do hear some rumblings in the general media about how this attitude is slowly changing, which is good for long-term sustainability of manufacturing, but it’s a slow process. 

I do not sense this apparent bias in the Germans, or for that matter, the Swiss and Austrians who have similar programs. Moreover, it has been explained to me that should a student decide to transfer from a vocational educational track to a university career course, it is quite feasible. And, it works the other way as well. A university student can transfer into a vocational curriculum and take up a trade.

As I travel around to various shops here in the U.S., I am seeing a reawakening regarding the value of in-house training. Most of these programs are being done on a local basis with cooperation between vocational/technical schools and businesses in the area where they are located. I see these grass roots initiatives springing up more frequently.

And there are national tools that are at manufacturing’s disposal as well. Programs such as NIMS and Skills USA are helping expose young people to careers in manufacturing and the trades. Trade associations such as the PMPA support these and other education efforts.

The fact of the matter is that to maintain our manufacturing base and remain globally competitive, it’s up to us in the industry to make it happen. Apprenticeships and internships do work, but they must be made to work. We once knew how. Perhaps we can relearn.