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OM in the News: German Apprenticeships in South Carolina

May 12, 2017

BMW’s plant in Spartanburg, S.C., is its biggest production facility in the world. It produces 1,400 cars a day and sends 70% of them overseas, making BMW the biggest car exporter in the U.S. By employing 9,000 people and training 100 apprentices at any one time, the BMW plant contributes to a skilled American workforce.

Overall, German companies employ about 700,000 people in the U.S. Often they implement the German-style training schemes for young people. In Germany, half the graduates of high schools and junior high schools choose a track that combines training on the job with further education at a public vocational institution. “This apprenticeship model,” writes the German ambassador to the U.S. in The Wall Street Journal (May 5, 2017), “is one reason why Germany has the lowest rate of youth unemployment in Europe and has been able to keep manufacturing jobs in the country.”

As high-wage countries, Germany and the U.S. face similar challenges in protecting existing production facilities and creating new manufacturing jobs. One of the most decisive factors for companies is whether they can find skilled and motivated workers, which is what apprenticeship programs provide. It’s also important to prepare for the industries of the future. In the era of New Manufacturing (what Europe has dubbed “Industry 4.0”), artificial intelligence and other digital technologies will transform factories and the workplace.

We all know that there is a tendency toward higher education in the U.S. Nevertheless, the success of the German apprenticeship model builds on the conviction that it is an equivalent alternative to college education. That approach in Germany has provided a solid return on companies’ investment, helped them to innovate, and contributed to warm relations between employers and employees.

Classroom discussion questions:

  1. Why is this model so rare in the U.S?
  2. What other German company has widely used apprentice training in the U.S? (see Chapter 1)
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