Wednesday, October 23, 2013

AMT Viewpoint: European-Style Vocational Training Can Work Here

JonesGregresizeThroughout the history of the world, people have been transferring their skills from one generation to the next through some form of apprenticeship. Over the past few decades, however, we in the U.S. have experienced a diminished ability to pass down legacy knowledge that is trade specific in manufacturing, and some might say that, as a result, we’ve lost the will to conduct vocational training and education programs.
In early September, I had the opportunity to tour Austria’s Vocational Education and Training (VET) programs, otherwise known as dual training or apprenticeship programs, as a guest of the Austrian Trade Commission’s commemoration of The Marshall Plan. I extended my tour into Switzerland, visiting dual training programs there with Swissmem, the association of mechanical and electrical engineering industries, and Kaiser Tooling. I found similar programs in both countries, and since then I’ve been giving a lot of thought to how we can replicate a model in the U.S.
The U.S. education system is more focused on generating high school graduates who can go on to  four-year college education than on preparing students for careers in manufacturing. As a result, the country has a high student loan debt load and poor percentage of college students who graduate in four years (if at all). Even since the end of the financial crisis, chronic unemployment or under-employment plagues our nation’s college graduates. Their degrees simply don’t match the needs of most employers in many industries.
The focus on four-year college degrees limits the choices for those who are often described as “mechanically inclined” or “good at working with their hands.” All too often, that description serves as a euphemism for “we don’t know where they fit, but they aren’t college material.” As a result, many of these young people drop out of high school, especially those in urban communities.
In both Austria and Switzerland, after the equivalent of ninth grade is completed, a student is given a choice to either prepare for a university education or pursue a VET track. The student is assisted with the decision based on school performance, aptitude testing, and open job availability.
The dual training systems result in a very low national unemployment rate — about 5 percent in Austria. The unemployment rate among youth (those up to 24 years of age) is much lower than in the U.S. as well.
In Austria, at age 15, nearly 50 percent of students begin paid apprenticeship programs. The other 50 percent remain in school in preparation for university. For the VET track, a coalition of government, businesses, trade unions, and schools work on filling more than 200 identified skilled trades. Students who choose the skilled trades are matched to employers by choice, and for the most part, apprentices work four days a week and go to school one day a week during the four years of their apprenticeships.
Apprenticeship education begins with the fundamentals of using hand tools, measurement instruments, manual machine tools, etc, as well as computer design, solid modeling, and rapid prototyping using 3D printing.
What is Europe’s “secret sauce” in encouraging young people to participate in apprenticeship programs? It’s not because there is a better perception about careers in manufacturing there. Many parents in Europe want their kids to go to university, just like U.S. parents, policy-makers, and administrators. But there is more awareness about the skilled trades, because these programs are driven from the top down.
From my perspective, Europe is better at bringing the next generation into skilled trade programs through these dual training programs because countries focus on the local community level. Schools and companies work in partnership with trade unions to design and accredit the programs around real local needs.
It’s possible for the U.S. to adapt similar strategies and methods if we also approach the skilled trades from a local level. High school students by their junior years already have the opportunity to enter two-year, dual credit programs in advanced manufacturing technology at community colleges. By the time they complete their senior years, they can fulfill first-year college requirements for their associate degrees and complete those degrees in one additional full year while participating in internships at local manufacturing companies.
For those students who wish to continue toward four-year bachelor’s degrees, they can maintain an overall lower cost of their education through tuition reimbursement plans with their employers.
We are already seeing these dual credit programs succeed in many states; the key to making them work is for manufacturing companies to collaborate locally with their high schools, vocational schools, STEM academies, and community colleges. AMT – The Association For Manufacturing Technology is a partner with the National Coalition of Advanced Technology Centers, a group of nearly 200 community colleges across the U.S. that have terrific advanced manufacturing technology programs.
The Obama administration has expanded grants through the Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career Training program to strengthen education-employer partnerships.
The U.S. manufacturing industry, as well as the educational system, can benefit from taking a page from the European playbook and adapting it to suit domestic needs. It’s my hope that we can see more coordination between government, business, and academia toward strengthening and improving this type of collaboration for the benefit of students and, ultimately, our industry.

1 comment:

  1. This was a good suggestion that you put up here...dude…..hope that it benefits all the ones who land up here. 

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