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High stakes for Michigan's pilot apprenticeship program

Toyota UK
An engineer works with a student apprentice at Toyota.

Michigan imports a lot of things from Germany, from craft beer to high-tech appliances.

Now, the state's trying to import Germany's highly successful apprentice system.

The hope is that employer-paid apprenticeships could address two problems: high-skilled jobs that go unfilled – and four-year college degrees that are becoming unaffordable.

One such program is already underway, teaching students how to manage automated assembly lines.

“Setting the example”

I'm in a lab at Henry Ford Community College today, watching a group of apprentices try to fix a deliberately broken automated assembly line.

Instructor Gary Wisnewski is talking RaLaMar Wiggins through part of the assignment.

The students are learning a trade called mechatronics in Michigan's first try at a German-style apprentice program.  

It was started by the Michigan Economic Development Corporation, Henry Ford and Oakland Community colleges, and 11 German auto suppliers with operations in Michigan.

In the end, the apprentices will be able to do a job the suppliers sorely need to fill – managing automated assembly lines.

The students will go back and forth between classroom instruction and on-the-job training for three years.  Hopefully, at the end, they'll get full-time jobs.

Apprentice Rebecca Newmann says they have to work 40 hours a week, either in the classroom or on the job, but the auto suppliers pay the tuition, and a wage.

“$200 a week,” Newmann says. “It's not bad for being paid to go to school.”

Apprentice Austin Cronin feels some extra pressure to succeed.  The high-stakes pilot was mentioned by Gov. Snyder in his most recent State of the State speech.

“It's like we are setting the example for the rest,” Cronin said. “If we are successful, they'll continue. If we fail, they'll discontinue it.”

In the long run, the hope is, this program will expand to other fields.

Working with competitors

Sean McAlinden is an economist with the Center for Automotive Research.  

He says there's no doubt paid apprenticeships help Germany train its people for good jobs.

“Germany's manufacturing, which is not low-cost, has remained globally competitive  with this system," McAlinden said. “And that's a powerful attractant.”

But McAlinden says changing how we train people won't be easy or fast.

Sophie Stepke says one obstacle will be cultural.

Stepke runs the apprentice program for Z-F, one of the German suppliers.

She says companies from each industry come together and agree on what the apprentices learn, even if some skills help only a few of the companies. That improves the quality of labor for everyone.

“Here in the U.S. that's a totally new concept, and it brings also a different mindset in,” Stepke said. “All of a sudden we have to work together even if we are competitors.”

Of course, there's a danger that companies not involved in the new system will swoop in and hire the workers away from the suppliers.

But Stepke says apprentices are really loyal, because so much has been invested in them.

And doing nothing isn't a good option.  

Too many people with four-year degrees can't find jobs. Too many employers can't find skilled workers.

Stepke thinks these apprentices are taking the first step toward a radical change in Michigan's education system.

“Detroit, Michigan, is all about auto manufacturing, Stepke said. “So have students being trained in that area, and then, it comes down to all professions.”

And the pilot is about to expand, in a small way.

There's a plan for a second class of mechatronics apprentices this fall, and possibly two new programs, in industrial design and information technology.

Tracy Samilton covers energy and transportation, including the auto industry and the business response to climate change for Michigan Public. She began her career at Michigan Public as an intern, where she was promptly “bitten by the radio bug,” and never recovered.
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