Washington — Advocates for European-style apprenticeships in the United States say they see a critical mass forming for those kinds of programs.
Suzan LeVine, the former U.S. ambassador to Switzerland and Liechtenstein, counts herself as one of them: "The stars are aligning in the United States for this."
It may seem an unusual cause for a former diplomat. But LeVine said her experience as ambassador, visiting hundreds of Swiss companies — including some plastics firms — convinced her there's a big role to play for European-style apprenticeships in the United States.
Levine, who was ambassador from 2014 to 2017, told a recent conference in Washington about a visit to a Swiss plastics factory of EMS-Chemie. She showed attendees a picture of herself meeting one of the apprentices, a 16-year-old studying extrusion.
"What was exceptional was he was presenting to the U.S. ambassador — super scary, right? And he had developed this skill set, he was presenting, he was communicating. He had his fellow apprentices with whom he was collaborating," she said.
"In the United States, we talk about project-based learning and acquiring 21st century skills," she said. "This is the ultimate delivery of that, plus it includes a paycheck."
Since returning to the United States, LeVine, who has a degree in mechanical engineering, started working with workforce development groups in Washington state and Colorado.
She has some plastics connections back home: She's a board member of CareerWise Colorado, a nonprofit youth apprenticeship agency started by Noel Ginsburg, chairman and CEO of Intertech Plastics Inc. in Denver. Ginsburg is also CEO of Careerwise Colorado.
LeVine told the story of meeting the Swiss extrusion apprentice at a Dec. 12 forum hosted by the National Academies of Sciences in Washington to review that agency's report "Building America's Skilled Technical Workforce."
Advocates like LeVine see the Swiss, German and Austrian models of youth apprenticeships, which include several years of schooling and work, as a way to build technically competent workforces for companies and, at the same time, create paths to good-paying jobs for students.
"When I saw the Swiss system, it blew me away," she said in an interview after her talk. "When I saw that they value that pathway as highly as an academic pathway, and in fact the people who do practical and then go on, are even more highly valued, I realized this is what we need in the United States."
Others, however, question how much the U.S. can borrow from the long-established apprenticeship systems.
"With all due respect, the first thing we have to do is stop talking about the German-speaking area," said Joseph Fuller, a Harvard professor who has studied apprenticeships. "They are national systems. They are heavily subsidized in Germany by both at the state and national level. The information infrastructure has been designed to support them."
Fuller, speaking at a separate Dec. 14 forum on youth apprenticeships at the New America Foundation in Washington, said those European systems have been built over 75 years and have strong ties to business. Switzerland alone has more than 8,000 employer groups involved.
"It would be like me saying, 'If I were 22 years old and 7-feet tall, I'd be the starting center for the Boston Celtics,'" he said. "Well, great, I'm not, so I'm not going to be."
Instead, he pointed to locally tailored programs like a $1,000 tax credit in South Carolina that helped increase the number of apprenticeships tenfold over five years.
"What we should be doing is enabling states and regions within states to address this," he said.
Another speaker at the NEF event said we're in a period where everyone is talking about apprenticeships.
"We seem to be at a golden moment in many ways; there's a lot of conversations these days about apprenticeships," said David Etzwiler, CEO of the Siemens Foundation, which invests in workforce development in technology and engineering.
A speaker from German auto components maker Brose Fahrzeugteile GmbH & Co. KG told the NAS forum about trying to grow a modified version of its German apprenticeships in North America.
"We see the skills gap approaching," said Arnd Herwig, vice president of development for Brose North America. "We see a lack of talent, and we see that happening globally."
He called its apprenticeships in North America "a little underrepresented" because only 17 of the company's 300 apprentices worldwide are in the region, despite North America accounting for 25 percent of global sales.
Apprenticeships are just not as much part of corporate thinking here, he said.
"It is a cultural shift, doing apprenticeship programs," Herwig said. "It is something that is not that ingrained, especially in the industry in North America. It's been more stealing talent from somewhere else than actually training your own."
The German ambassador to the United States, Peter Wittig, drew parallels at the NAS event between U.S. and German manufacturing, in that both are high-wage countries that need to rely on innovation and skill, not cheap labor.
Wittig noted that the German apprenticeship model was "one of the main events" at a White House meeting in early 2017 between President Donald Trump, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and business leaders.
He said Trump strongly praised the German "dual system" training model, as it's called. Wittig said Germans credit it for making the country more competitive.
"In Germany, we are convinced that our dual system vocational education and training is a very decisive factor in keeping our economic output high, and our youth unemployment rate low," Wittig said. "It is one of the reasons why Germany has been able to keep manufacturing jobs."