Despite Trump's Push, Obstacles Remain For Return Of Apprenticeships

Jun 17, 2017
Originally published on June 17, 2017 12:36 pm
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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Donald Trump put a reality TV spin on what it means to be an apprentice. And as president, he's pushing apprenticeships in real life. He signed an executive order this week to loosen government requirements and increase federal grants to create millions of apprentice jobs. More and more companies seem intrigued by the idea of returning to apprenticeships, but so far, that interest hasn't sparked a big revival. Blake Farmer of member station WPLN in Nashville reports.

BLAKE FARMER, BYLINE: Business leaders always point to the Germans as the model. And when Volkswagen built its only plant in the U.S., it also imported its workforce training philosophy. In a highly selective program, apprentices spend three years splitting their time between the production line and these robotic labs.

CHRISTIAN KOCH: Now, the equipment we have, the technology we have on the shop floor is so difficult to handle, so you need to train people.

FARMER: Christian Koch is wrapping up his term heading the VW plant in Chattanooga, Tenn. But when he was starting his own career, he too was an apprentice.

KOCH: I did it from 1979 to 1982.

FARMER: It's a rite of passage, even for executives. And it's an acknowledgment that the company bears a lot of responsibility for training. Ilker Subasi helped launch VW's U.S. apprenticeship program.

ILKER SUBASI: We don't expect any experience because we want to train them for our processes and for our needs.

FARMER: But this kind of company-sponsored education can easily reach into the six figures. So even with government incentives, it's costly. Many students also get VW's help to work abroad or finish a bachelor's degree. And they end the program with a $22-an-hour job. Caleb Higginbotham was one of the first graduates.

CALEB HIGGINBOTHAM: I knew Volkswagen tried to kind of take care of its employees, but I didn't know that it would be as exceptional and, like, all the benefits they provide and everything they're willing to do to try and help out.

FARMER: Volkswagen's view is that investing in people pays off when they spend an entire when they spend an entire career wearing the company uniform - and many do. But when it comes to apprenticeship, Tamar Jacoby, who's president of Opportunity America, says not everyone has such deep pockets.

TAMAR JACOBY: The companies that can pull it off should pull it off. And I'd like to see a lot more of them do it. But it's a little bit like a marathon.

FARMER: She says it's hard for small businesses to take such a long view. If the government is putting more money into apprenticeships, Jacoby says grants should be made available for smaller-scale programs too. But money isn't always the deterrent. Jacoby's organization, which focuses on training for low-income people, recently sat down with companies that flirted with starting apprenticeships but passed.

JACOBY: Almost to a company what they said was, no, we train anyway. We know we have to train. And we know training costs money. But what we actually don't want to do, we don't want the government involved in this.

FARMER: In response to concerns about red tape, President Trump's proposal attempts to streamline the Labor Department's regulation of apprenticeships. For instance, companies could oversee themselves. That could run into resistance.

But Jacoby says it may push companies that already have extensive training to take the plunge into apprenticeships. For example, in Smyrna, Tenn., Nissan partnered with a state-run tech school near its flagship U.S. plant.

PARUL BAJAJ: So it's literally right across the street.

FARMER: Spokesperson Parul Bajaj says Nissan provides four full-time instructors. Students aren't guaranteed a job but they've got a leg up.

BAJAJ: The facility is a great way for us to ensure that there's, you know, a steady pipeline of students who have these great manufacturing and automation skills.

FARMER: Nissan is even offering part-time work for second-year students, though it's not an official apprenticeship, at least not yet. But more big employers will have to get on board to hit the administration's lofty goal of 4.5 million apprentices. Currently in the U.S., they're just 500,000. For NPR News, I'm Blake Farmer in Nashville.

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