Pittston, Pa. — Austria's Greiner Packaging International GmbH has big goals for its apprenticeship program in its first U.S. factory: It hopes the costly effort will, in time, mirror its European factories and become a major source of new employees.
But first, executives at the Pennsylvania facility have had to work to overcome a big difference in attitudes between the United States and Europe.
"We actually had a job to try and sell it and convince people about what the program is," said David Kirkland, president of the U.S. operation, Greiner Packaging Corp., in Pittston and a native of Northern Ireland.
"That was the biggest difference from Europe," he said. "Apprenticeships are just common culture over there. Nobody's even questioning the scheme. Whereas over here we had to sell what we're trying to do."
Kirkland said the U.S. high school seniors they target, and their families, generally haven't been exposed to the kind of detailed, three-year apprenticeships that Greiner has, with tuition paid by the company.
People in the U.S. will ask, "What do you mean, 'You're going to pay for my education?'" he said.
"Because apprenticeships are not common, people didn't believe it," Kirkland said. "The culture and getting the public buy into it here was the biggest issue we had."
But he said Greiner feels the program is working in Pittston, and they've made progress in changing perceptions. Each year since the 2016 launch, recruiting gets easier as word gets out more widely to schools and the community, he said.
The parent company Greiner Packaging International, based in Kresmunster, Austria, has 22 factories worldwide, and it uses apprenticeships widely.
It made its foray into the U.S. packaging market by opening in Pittston in 2014. From the start, it's had plans for apprenticeships.
Kirkland is a particular fan, for personal reasons — he began with Greiner as an apprentice in Northern Ireland.
The 33-year-old completed his apprenticeship in mold making and rose through the company. In 2014, he moved to the U.S. to be chief operating officer of the Pittston facility and became its president in early 2017.
"I came out of an apprenticeship and I'm the president of this company, the U.S. business," he said. "That's not as uncommon as what you would think."
In time, he wants the apprenticeship program in Pittston to be the same sort of pipeline for new employees as it is in Europe.
One of its factories in the United Kingdom, for example, started an updated version of apprenticeships six years ago, what the company calls its Greiner Gold program. It has since been able to get about 10 percent of its workforce from it, all hired to handle new growth, Kirkland said.
In other Greiner factories, that figure is higher.