As the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) expands its Registered Apprenticeship College Consortium (RACC) among community colleges and employer partners, those involved are looking to countries like Germany and Switzerland for inspiration.
In some cases, that’s meant partnering with companies from those countries, which have had more comprehensive apprenticeship infrastructures in place for longer than the U.S., and which provide experiences that can give students a window to the global economy. Occasionally, it’s even meant providing students with opportunities to live and work abroad.
Part of the inspiration for the RACC came from officials like President Obama and cabinet secretaries Tom Perez of DOL and Penny Pritzker of the Department of Commerce traveling to countries with longstanding apprenticeship tracks, says Laura Ginsburg, team leader in the Office of Apprenticeships, which launched the RACC in April 2014.
“Registered apprenticeship has been very successful in Europe,” she says. U.S. leaders “looked at countries with robust apprenticeship programs and said, ‘Wow, this is something we could do here in the United States. This is a great workforce strategy we need to expand here.’”
Aiming for double
The Labor Department would like to double the total number of students pursuing apprenticeships by 2019, from a base figure of 375,000 in 2014. The department met its fiscal year goal of 500,000 as of Oct. 1, 2016, and is aiming for 600,000 by Oct. 1, 2017.
“That’s going to be a steep climb for us,” Ginsburg says. After adding about 50,000 students in fiscal year 2016, the office wants to add 100,000 this year. “That’s going to take a lot of work.”
One strategy has been to bring into the fold international companies with apprenticeship programs in their home countries, such as Germany, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and the Netherlands.
“They’re very familiar with the basic structure,” she says, which combines classroom and/or lab instruction with on-the-job training, a full employment wage, a certificate or degree and the promise of — and temporary requirement to take — a full-time job.
“With an apprenticeship, you are training for an in-demand job,” Ginsburg adds. “The whole reason companies are taking on and doing an apprenticeship is that they have a skills gap. … They’re taking somebody with no experience, putting them through related coursework, generally at a community college. It’s a huge investment for the companies. But at the end of the apprenticeship, they will have employees who will stay with the company.”
Setting the table
International companies are setting the table for their respective sectors, Ginsburg says. For example, Zurich North America is hosting the first apprenticeship program in the insurance industry, and it recently hosted a meeting of major insurance companies in Chicago to make them aware of the opportunities.
“What they bring to us is the validation — that has helped us to market to a lot of their peer companies in the same industry,” Ginsburg says of international firms. “Most of the European companies have become leaders. They’re taking that role very seriously.”
Students’ experience is not necessarily radically different from those who are apprentices with American companies, Ginsburg says, with a minimum of 2,000 hours of on-the-job training and 144 hours of related instruction, usually at community colleges. It’s certainly possible that students are gaining greater exposure to the global economy; others are doing so through U.S.-based multinational companies, as well, she says.
“Part of their apprenticeship could be learning about global markets,” Ginsburg says. “One thing some of the companies are doing is that they will have apprentices go to their home country for maybe a semester, or a few months, to learn about the company and the processes there.”
Swiss companies have been training U.S. students using European-style apprenticeships since long before 2014 and the advent of the RACC, says Swiss Ambassador to the United States Martin Dahinden. With the increased interest under RACC, his embassy has been serving as an information exchange and broker, organizing fact-finding visits and expert meetings for not only the federal government but states, companies and colleges themselves, he says.
“Companies that have started this form of education have the problem that the classroom training needs to be provided by someone,” he says. “Community colleges are the best place to do so, to provide the basic classroom education.”
Partnering with companies that compete at the global level with cutting-edge technology ensures that curricula will prepare students robustly, Dahinden says.
“It’s important if you want to have cutting-edge skills that he or she works in a laboratory that is exposed to global competition, and not perhaps with a curriculum designed five years ago or with equipment purchased 10 years ago,” he says. “This is the most important element: that the content is driven by those who are exposed to global competition.”
So long as the burgeoning U.S. apprenticeship system has basic elements like classroom and on-the-job training along with earning while you learn, the system need not — and probably should not attempt to — precisely replicate those of European countries, Dahinden says.