Learn & Earn

In October 2014, a team led by AICGS went to France, Germany, Great Britain, and Hungary to meet with companies and other stakeholders in the apprenticeship systems. The sixth meeting of the working group “Learn & Earn: A Young Leaders’ Group for the Development of the U.S. Workforce” was convened to discuss the results of this program. Kimberly Frank and Parke Nicholson from AICGS and Sarah Steinberg from the Center for American Progress (CAP) were the DC representatives from the research team, and they presented their insights from the trip.

The project aimed to take a wider view at different models of apprenticeship in Europe, especially in the light of the Europe-wide challenge to retool the workforce in the face of troubling youth unemployment. One goal of the visits was also to engage a variety of parties in the conversation: companies from different sectors, as well as schools and unions.

The example of Alcoa, a manufacturer for turbine parts based in Exeter, UK, illustrated the corporate benefits of hosting an apprenticeship program. Its apprentices learn highly specialized skills that even experienced professionals hired from another training program would not possess. Once fully trained, the company benefits by easily retaining its employees. “Poaching” is not a major issue due to loyalty fostered through the apprenticeship. Further, by developing the local workforce, the company not only makes itself independent from changing workforce mobility, it also projects an image of sustainability toward the local community.

The spotlight was not just on the companies, but also on the intermediaries that contribute to the functioning of an apprenticeship system. In France, while the national government only minimally regulates the internship system, labor unions play a large role in assuring quality control for the training programs by enforcing rigorous standards and quotas on the vocational schools that cooperate with the employers. In the UK, the agenda is being set by so-called “trailblazers,” groups of companies handpicked by the government to advance the quality of apprenticeship programs within their sector. Meanwhile, there is relatively little coordination between schools and employers to optimize the theoretical side of the programs. Germany most exemplifies a strong, balanced approach that coordinates different stakeholders: unions and the union confederation on one hand, the chambers of commerce on the other.

Trying to draw conclusions about prospects for vocational training in the U.S., the discussion proceeded to revolve around incentives that contribute to developing the apprenticeship market. In the UK and Hungary, these were chiefly tax breaks given to companies for each apprentice they train. Aid is also given in some countries for theoretical education at vocational schools, and lowered minimum wages for apprentices. Such financial incentives, while an effective first step for broadening the supply for apprenticeships, would need to be followed by quality control—otherwise they remain a hollow measure against youth unemployment. Through mandatory measures, France, by enforcing a training tax on companies, and Germany, through commerce chamber membership, motivate companies to make use of a system they are already obligated to help finance.

Incentives of that order as well as relevant infrastructure are lacking in the United States. Another issue that the U.S. will face on the way to establishing a successful system of apprenticeships is the challenge of navigating the political system: first, finding a way to incentivize apprenticeships with bipartisan support; second, defining roles and functions needed that need to be fulfilled in order to implement the system in each individual state. Developing a common understanding of what an apprenticeship should provide and achieve is crucial. A common understanding is not yet present among the European countries either, but much can be learned from examining their different approaches.

Learn and Earn Design 2Information about the working group:

The American Institute for Contemporary German Studies (AICGS) at Johns Hopkins has been working on bringing together a number of different actors concerned with workforce development in the U.S. to encourage sharing of ideas, learning lessons from different countries, seeing what challenges lay ahead, and where further cooperation is needed to encourage public-private partnerships towards promoting specialized skills training opportunities.

“Learn & Earn” is a working group of young professionals from a variety of different sectors and backgrounds (energy, education, finance, industry, manufacturing, etc.) that gather monthly to discuss the role of workforce training in economic development around the world.

Past events:

  • June, 2014: Robert Dehm from the German Embassy’s Economic Department presented the German Embassy’s Skills Initiative.
  • July: Zach Boren, Senior Advisor at the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Apprenticeships, explained how they are trying to brand apprenticeships to an American audience.
  • August: Max Grünig, Senior Fellow of Ecologic, led a discussion on the growth of green industry in Europe and the U.S. and how that has spurred growth of apprenticeship programs in that field.
  • September: Katie Gage from Enstitute talked about her nonprofit organization and the challenges they run into in recruiting young applicants.
  • October: Dr. Achim Dercks, Deputy Chief Executive Officer of the Association of German Chambers of Industry and Commerce, presented on the role of domestic institutions on developing sustainable apprenticeship programs, during our first field trip to the Representative of German Industry + Trade (RGIT).

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