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OM in the News: Making American Factory Workers More Tech-Savvy

September 27, 2014

apprenticeshipGerman robotics company Festo AG wants to make American factory workers more tech-savvy. As robotics take an ever more prominent role on factory floors, training workers and keeping their skills up-to-date has grown in importance, writes The Wall Street Journal (Sept. 10, 2014). Festo sees in the U.S. “a mismatch in the labor market between what businesses need and the kind of education young people are getting,” said its CEO. The firm is banking on growing demand for German-style vocational education in the U.S. In Germany, companies take on full-time apprentices as young as 16 and provide both theoretical and hands-on training in technical skills the companies need. Such programs usually last two years and results in a certification that is recognized across the industry.

About 2 million U.S. jobs go unfilled because of shortfalls in skills, training or education. Of those, roughly 600,000 are jobs that require more than a high-school diploma but less than a bachelor’s degree. One-third of U.S. job openings through 2020 will require such middle skills, with a vocational certificate, industry-based certification, some college credits or an associate degree—but not a classic four-year college degree. “American training in these areas has deteriorated since the early 1980s,” says one Georgetown U. professor.

German companies with operations in the U.S. have complained for years that factory workers lack specific skills they require to get the job done. Executives and American policy makers have said the U.S. could benefit from Germany’s approach to apprenticeships and on-the-job training. But the German approach is hard to transplant. “It’s a question of culture,” said an industry expert. “Parents and teachers tell kids that going to a four-year college is the only path.”

Classroom discussion questions:

1. Why has the German system seen slow acceptance in the U.S.?

2. Is there a relationship between productivity and apprenticeship programs?

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