Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Germany Trying to Show the United States How to Manufacture Manufacturing Workers – Will the U. S. See It

Probably Not – It Involves Partnerships with Public Schools and Community Colleges

There are a lot of reasons why Germany has done better than the United States in the tepid recovery following the Great Recession but one of the most important is the difference in attitude in the two countries towards the labor force.  In the United States companies regard manufacturing workers as the enemy.  For them a skilled work force is something that reduces profit, and a cost to be minimized.  Few things make manufacturing executives happier than firing workers (Mitt Romney was quoted somewhat out of context when he said he like’s firing people, but not completely).

German manufacturing companies view the labor force in a different light.  To them skilled labor is a resource to be cultivated, maintained and protected.  They recognize that companies spend huge sums to create a skilled work force and that terminating those workers when there is cost pressure is not the right strategy in the long term. 

In Germany, nearly two-thirds of the country's workers are trained through partnerships among companies, technical schools and trade guilds. Last year, German companies took on and trained nearly 600,000 paid apprentices. The schools provide theoretical lessons on the side, while trade unions help ensure training is standardized.

When the Great Recession came German companies partnered with labor unions and the government to produce policies and government subsidies to keep workers on the payroll. This kept personal income from falling, shortened the Great Recession and when demand for German manufacturing products increased in the recovery, German manufacturers were ready and able to meet demand with quality products.

The good news in all of this is that German companies are exporting this philosophy to their manufacturing units in the United States.

Volkswagen, whose auto factory will graduate its first class of U.S. apprentices next year, is one of dozens of companies introducing training that combine German-style apprenticeships and vocational schooling.

And it’s not like this isn’t needed.

Though unemployment remains stuck above 8%, companies can't find enough machinists, robotics specialists and other highly skilled workers to maintain their factory floors. An estimated 600,000 skilled, middle-class manufacturing jobs remain unfilled nationwide, even as millions of Americans search for work.

But it is not clear if this philosophy and attitude will carry over the U. S. companies.  See it involves using, gasp, government, primarily in the form of coordinating training with community colleges and high schools.  But there is some hope.

In the U.S., such close cooperation doesn't often exist. Another stumbling block has been companies' fear of spending on training, only to see apprentices go elsewhere. Siemens spends approximately $165,000 an apprentice in its new three-year mechatronics training program in Charlotte, N.C.

But where apprenticeship programs are reaching a critical mass, U.S. companies have joined. At Central Piedmont Community College in Charlotte, where some 200 German firms have nearby operations, 18 companies participate in company-tailored apprentice partnerships. Most are European, but a few, such as U.S. bearings maker Timken Co.,TKR +2.51% also take part.

If it could be adopted by U. S. companies, if executive could change their attitudes and quit looking at workers and unions as enemies and costs then maybe they could get this type of program and results.

Its apprenticeship program is a backup plan to ensure it has enough skilled workers for future plant expansions. About two dozen students join the program each year, then toggle between on-site classroom and on-the job training, while getting paid a starting $10 an hour.

One recruit was 28-year-old Brian Burton, who joined the program last year. When they graduate in 2014, he and his brother Mark will have Volkswagen job offers—likely in skilled maintenance jobs starting at $22 an hour—as well as technical diplomas from Chattanooga State Community College. "It's not an education we can get anywhere else," Mr. Burton said.

No Brian doesn’t look like a cost to most of us, he looks like a valuable resource.  Too bad narrow minded corporate executives cannot see it that way.

1 comment:

  1. Great article, indeed. Keep at it please TDPE. As you know this country is its own worst enemy!