Indianapolis — Colorado manufacturers are gearing up to do much more than advise and criticize the school systems they so desperately depend on for a skilled workforce.
They're getting ready to turn their companies into extensions of the classroom in ways not really seen in the United States. Businesses are collaborating with schools to offer apprenticeship programs where 70 percent of high school students will spend three days a week in the workplace and just two days in the classroom.
And, injection molder Noel Ginsburg, CEO of Intertech Plastics Inc. in Denver, is leading the charge to try to improve outcomes for both students and business. It's all based on what he has seen in Switzerland, which has topped the Global Innovation Index for the last two years.
“Students participate in a parallel learning system — the theory in the classroom and the practice in industry through paid, work-based training,” Ginsburg told a sold-out crowd at the 2015 Benchmarking and Best Practices Conference put on by the Manufacturers Association of Plastics Processors in Indianapolis Oct. 22-23.
“You might look at that and say that's impossible,” he added. “It's one of those ambitious goals that probably can't happen but we'll put it on paper anyway. I would have believed that until [this summer] when I spent 12 days in Switzerland.
Ginsburg was part of an entourage of educators, economic developers and trade association members that traveled to the European nation to see how businesses lead the effort to develop future talent through vocational education training (VET). Businesses start preparing students for highly skilled, high-demand jobs starting at age 15 or 16.
“The provider of education is primarily companies and industries, not schools, because we know what we need for our factories and businesses to run well,” Ginsburg said. “They leave it up to schools to teach reading, writing, arithmetic and core skills and they leave the rest up to industry. And it works.”
About 75 percent of Swiss students go for an apprenticeship certification while 25 percent pursue a four-year college degree. Most enterprises making up the Swiss economy — banking, financing, management, information technology, health care and manufacturing — offer VET.
“They realized that because they're a small country if they were to be successful they had to have the best workforce,” Ginsburg said. “We can all buy the best equipment but it's who drives that equipment that really makes the difference.”
The Swiss banking industry recently invested $20 million into its training system to make sure its talent pipeline is full, Ginsburg said. Regardless of the industry, apprentices earn about $800 a month, he added, as they spend most of the week in the field learning to do jobs that generally start at $55,000.
“Every year companies post the jobs they think they will need apprentices for the next two to four years,” Ginsburg said. “If there are no jobs being created, there are no apprenticeships being created. So you can't study an apprenticeship where there isn't going to be opportunities for you. It's a very market-driven system and a very powerful system.”
While on a VET tour, Ginsburg said he asked a young apprentice why he chose the program.
“He said — almost all of them speak English — when I was in class and they were telling me about tolerances and dimensions, I didn't care. But when I'm making this component for this machine, if it isn't within one-hundredth of a thousandth, it won't work. So they are connecting the theory with the practice,” Ginsburg said.
In a lot of cases, apprentices stay with the company where they earned while they learned. They start out making a middle-class wage and the employer ends up with a consistently productive workforce. It's a proven solution for businesses to recruit, train and retain highly skilled workers, Ginsburg said.
“It's highly profitable because can you imagine having someone come into your business who actually knew what they were doing before they graduated,” he asked plastics processors.
Because of the apprenticeship programs, the unemployment rate for Swiss youth ages 15-24 is 3.7 percent compared to 16.3 percent for Americans ages 16-19, according to the latest figures released respectively by the State Secretariat for Economic Affairs in Switzerland and the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
In the United States