In fact, German companies with extensive operations in the U.S., such as Siemens, are replicating some of their apprenticeship programs here. Siemens opened what it calls the world’s most advanced gas-turbine plant in Charlotte, North Carolina, in 2011 but had difficulty in finding people to operate it. In particular, the company needed people trained in mechatronics, a new interdisciplinary profession that includes mechanical, computer and electronic engineering with software control and system design.
The company developed a skills-assessment method and trained or retrained 500 people during the ramp up of the plant, says Eric A. Spiegel, Siemens USA president and chief executive.
In addition, it created an apprenticeship program with Central Piedmont Community College. “Currently, there are a couple dozen recent high school graduates and veterans who are sitting in a classroom in Charlotte learning about advanced mechatronics,” Spiegel says. “These students are in the second year of a 3½ year apprenticeship program. They attend classes on advanced mechatronics half of the time.” The other half of the time, they work in the plant.
Siemens pays the students throughout this period and they will receive a certificate from the state of North Carolina that says they are trained in mechatronics. “They are guaranteed a job in our plant when they graduate,” Spiegel explains. The starting salary is $55,000 a year.
At least some CEOs of small and mid-sized companies appear to be imitating aspects of the German system—but on a highly localized basis rather than on a national one. One is Michael Araten, CEO of the Rodon Group, a privately held, mid-sized company that makes an impressive 5 billion to 6 billion customized, plastic products each year for the medical, pharmaceutical, consumer-products, construction, food and toy industries.