Williamston, Mich. — Would I still be a journalist if I had been more exposed to the skilled trades growing up? That question popped into my head a few weeks ago during a visit to Bekum America Corp., the U.S. operation of German extrusion blow molding machinery maker Bekum Maschinenfabriken GmbH.
Apprentices at the North American headquarters in Williamston, Mich., spend about four years in a structured, on-the-job training program that's based on a German-style apprenticeship.
I was told by Patrick Smith, Bekum's apprentice trainer and a former toolmaker for General Motors Co., that the German model is more heavily focused on hand skills and hand tools.
"Files … in my apprenticeship were for deburring or putting the chamfer on a part," Smith said. "Over here, you're actually making parts flat, square — 90 degrees totally from a file."
The 8,000-hour apprenticeship program includes five areas of study: machinist, machine builder, industrial electrician, steel fabricator/welder and, the newest addition, mechatronics. Students gain skills and experience working side-by-side Bekum's veteran employees and earn about 59 credit hours at Lansing Community College. Bekum covers the tuition and material expenses, but the students have to maintain a 3.0 grade point average.
Apprentices spend their first nine to 12 months in the company's apprentice training center, essentially a learning incubator tucked away in a quiet corner of the manufacturing floor. The students here use German apprenticeship books that have been translated into English. The idea is to make sure the students head to the manufacturing floor with the same basic level of knowledge and skills required.
"I want them to be successful on all assignments, so this isn't something that you can go into cold turkey," Smith told me. "You have to practice. It takes a lot of practice."
Average starting pay for the students is around $10.65 an hour. After every 1,000 hours or six months, assuming they're meeting all the criteria of the program, they'll get a pay increase. Upon completion, apprentices are given a journeyman certificate. They're not guaranteed a full-time spot at Bekum, but the door for job prospects at other companies opens wider.