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Training & Education

A different kind of import: Training philosophy

By Udo O.J. Huff, M.ED.

Taking a cue from German counterparts, the U.S. metalworking industry looks for high standards in apprenticeships and training programs

September 2014 - Nationwide, industry is on the rise. That said, challenges arise with increased productivity. Many companies are facing a generation gap in knowledge and know-how as senior employees retire. The result? A loss of experienced labor and trade skills.

“Talk to almost any manufacturer and the average age of their workers is dramatically higher than the average American,” says Mark Tomkins, vice president of the German American Chamber of Commerce of the Midwest Inc. “Machinists and welders tend to be much older because we haven’t been training a younger workforce to replace them.”

This lack of a younger, skilled workforce could have a serious detrimental effect on the long-term health of the metalworking industry and on the United States’ global competitiveness ranking. “If we’re going to be competitive, we better start training their replacements yesterday,” says Tomkins.

Educational opportunities

During July, President Obama signed into law the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act. It’s designed to streamline efforts, eliminate redundancy and establish standardized performance metrics across training and education programs.

“What was particularly impressive is the bipartisan support,” says Tomkins. “You need to expand the workforce, and the bill that was signed is one step in that direction.”

The predominant focus now is those training programs. How do we prevent 

experienced hands and practical problem-solving skills from draining out of the economy? Can we rely on our existing technical educational system or do we have to change how we train and what subjects we teach?

Some states are investigating, adjusting and implementing a highly successful example: The German dual vocational training model where apprenticeships are combined with classroom training at technical colleges. 

“The Germans take a holistic approach,” says Tomkins, who is one of the key players working to establish similar programming in Illinois and the Midwest by the fall of 2015. He cites the Michigan Advanced Technician Training program (MAT2) as a successful adaptation of the German program. More than 30 companies and community colleges collaborate on this effort, which offers community college students paid vocational training, an associate’s degree and German certification in an advanced vocational skill and guaranteed job at the close of the three-year program.

There are similar efforts underway in other states, including Indiana, Ohio and Kentucky, where in the Lexington and Louisville area,  ever larger companies are getting on board.

“Toyota and GE are leading the effort down in Kentucky,” says Tomkins. “But an important point is that they are working with many other companies, including small employers to create a training system that benefits the entire local economy.” 

Going big with mid-sized companies

For domestic industries to remain competitive in the world market, they must adapt. Both industry and technical educational institutions must jointly create innovative technical training to meet urgent and growing job skills gaps. What also helps to foster success in this arena is getting buy-in and commitment from mid-sized companies, says Tomkins.

One reason the MAT2 program became so successful is its rigorous standards, which are applied consistently across the program and are benchmarked internationally. Consistency is key in that skills learned in one program are then portable if or when jobs are shed at one company and those employees must apply for work elsewhere. 

“The secret is how to scale programming so you can get lots of small and mid-sized companies on board and achieve synchronicity,” he says. “This action does require long-term thinking and planning. You’re spreading programming across multiple companies and academia, at the same time building a workforce in which those people have world class skills. 

“On the flip side,” he continues, “companies looking to hire have a larger pool to draw from because everyone’s been training under similar guidelines. If well done, it will benefit companies big time in terms of a stable and trained work force, improved productivity and quality, resulting in higher profit margins.” FFJ

Udo O. J. Huff is an independent consultant with project experience in machine building, welding engineering, training and development. He holds Master of Education and Bachelor of Science in Technology degrees from Bowling Green State University. Questions or comments? E-mail uhuff@sbcglobal.net.

 

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