Learning from European apprentice models

Buhler President Rene Steiner (left) chats with attendees of AACC's Workforce Development Institute. Photo: Ellie AshfordBuhler President Rene Steiner (left) chats with attendees of AACC's Workforce Development Institute. Photo: Ellie Ashford

NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. — U.S. community colleges interested in starting apprenticeships can learn a lot from longstanding programs in Europe.

Several of those models, as well as U.S. initiatives, were highlighted this week in a plenary session at the American Association of Community Colleges’ Workforce Development Institute.

There is growing recognition that apprenticeships are not separate from career and technical education (CTE) or the rest of the work done at community colleges, said James Jacobs, president of Macomb Community College in Michigan. What is needed, he said, are stronger links between student learning and the workplace and stronger ties to measures of student learning, such as degree completion and pathways.

The Swiss approach  

Switzerland has the most robust apprenticeship model in the world, and it’s completely integrated into the overall education system. It’s publicly funded with a dual vocational and training pathway leading to a two-year federal certificate, and after three or four years, a federal vocational baccalaureate, said Simon Marti, head of the Office of Science, Technology and Higher Education at the Swiss Confederation at the Swiss Embassy in Washington, D.C.

Apprentices, starting as early as age 15, spend three or four days a week in training and industry courses paid for by employers. They learn about the industry, not just how to do a specific job, Marti said.Students do real work – not simulated work –and they are paid a modest salary, about $500 to $1,500 a month in U.S. dollars.

Companies benefit by having young, productive workers. Apprentices benefit by having an opportunity “to earn a diploma that is worth something” and a guaranteed job, Marti said. Society benefits, too, as this concept contributes to a strong middle class.   

Meeting employer needs

When Rene Steiner came to Minnesota in 2005 as head of a regional office of Buhler Co., a Swiss-based food-processing manufacturer, he couldn’t find enough young people with the right skills. Rather than importing people from overseas, he decided to invest in an apprenticeship program in partnership with a community college.

Students spend three months a year at school, then three months at Buhler. They work in mechanical engineering the first year and automation the second year. In the third year, students work in different areas of the company, learning everything from purchasing to marketing. Working with customers also helps them build social competencies.

When they complete the program, the apprentices don’t have a degree but they have a certificate and can get a job anywhere, although all of them have stayed at Buhler, Steiner said. About half them go back to school to earn a degree.

Europe doesn’t have flexible community colleges like those in the U.S., so CHAIN5, a “community of practice,” was founded in the Netherlands in 2013 to bring together organizations and employers to promote workforce education, including apprenticeships, said CHAINS5 President Hans Daale.

CHAIN5 has 250 members from 30 countries and supports academic and workforce education.

The European Alliance for Apprenticeships, formed in 2014, includes many of the continent’s biggest companies, including Seimens and Nestle, Daale said, but it’s been difficult to get smaller businesses involved. He also said it’s been challenging to get students and their parents, who value an academic education, to consider vocational training. 

A role for outsourcing   

The United Kingdom has been able to expand apprenticeships by outsourcing the training component, said Kim Nichols, CEO of Franklin Apprenticeships.

In 2009, the U.K. created a national apprenticeship service to address high levels of youth unemployment. That effort included an awareness campaign and financial incentives.

Employers can’t do it on their own, Nichols said, so they are hiring outside companies to recruit apprentices, manage programs and track success.

“This is good opportunity for U.S. colleges,” Nichols said – not only for creating more opportunities for students, but also growing revenue for colleges and helping them serve their communities.   

Growth in the U.S.   

The number of registered apprenticeships in the U.S. has risen from 375,000 in 2013 to 505,371 in 2016, according to John Ladd of the Office of Apprenticeships and Training Administration at the U.S. Labor Department (DOL). The goal is to have 600,000 in FY 2017 and eventually 750,000.

The recent growth has been fueled by international partnerships, support from the U.S. Education Department (ED) and, most critically, by employers who want to expand but can’t find enough workers with the right skills.

People who’ve completed apprenticeships can earn $60,000 a year, and there are returns for businesses and the public, too. Employers can earn $1.47 for every dollar they invest in apprenticeships. And because the cost of these programs is mostly covered by employers,the public reaps $28 for every dollar invested.

The federal Registered Apprenticeship-College Consortium, a network created by DOL and ED that includes 301 colleges, has also helped the effort by highlighting 958 apprenticeship training centers across the country.

Still, more can be done. To expand apprenticeships, “we need to get over idea that apprenticeships are an alternative to higher education, “ said Gregory Henschel, an ED senior policy analyst. “This is not a lesser education.”

While community colleges are highly adaptive, there is more that than can do, he said, such as starting early with dual enrollment and fully implementing stackable credential systems for people who stop out of school to work and later return for more training.

About the Author

Ellie Ashford
is associate editor of Community College Daily.