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CHARLOTTE, N.C. – As a high school junior, Hope Johnson thought she had things figured out. She’d been hit with wanderlust during an academic trip to Brazil, set her sights on London’s Richmond University and hoped to pursue a career in diplomacy.

It was just the kind of white-collar job that would take her far from the confines of this modest southern city and please her dad, an elevator repairman who wanted his daughter to graduate from a four-year college.

That was before the 16-year-old was offered a life-defining choice by Siemens, the German industrial conglomerate: Drop everything, enroll in a competitive European-style apprenticeship, and get a free technical education and job in return.

Johnson opted for the job. The allure of traditional college life was strong, she said, “but you gotta pay the bills.”

Now, she’s learning to work with formless metal on a high-tech factory floor as part of a program that some see as an answer to one of the chief challenges facing the U.S. economy: Why, when so many people, particularly the young, are looking for work, do high-level manufacturing jobs at places like Siemens go unfilled? The country has the world’s most extensive and sophisticated higher education system, yet top executives warn of a crisis in the science, technology, engineering and math disciplines considered to be at the core of global economic competitiveness.

German companies such as Siemens in Charlotte or Wacker Chemical, which is building a working model of its polysilicon plant to train potential employees at Chattanooga State Community College, say German-style apprenticeship programs might help solve the dilemma.

At the center of the debate are people like Johnson – smart, but not academic superstars; motivated, but also concerned about the cost of college, wary of debt and from a family where tuition would be a burden. They are the middle of the middle class – the group perhaps most disrupted by the global trends that have eaten away at the country’s manufacturing base, kept wages stagnant and contributed to a sense of stalled economic mobility.

Unlike the apprenticeships common in the United States, the programs launched by German firms attempt to find potential workers early. In Germany, it’s not unusual for students to stop traditional high school at the equivalent of 10th grade and spend several years working and studying.

It’s no easy call for a U.S. high school senior, with friends chattering about where they want to go to college and parents insisting that college is the surest path to a productive life. There’s the volleyball team to think about, the final parties with friends and the send-off moments such as the senior class photo.

Johnson set that all aside and began splitting her time among high school, technical classes at Central Piedmont Community College, and a Siemens factory that builds steam- and natural-gas-fired turbines for power plants around the world. In three years she will be on the sunrise shift, running a vertical boring mill alongside crews that are mostly male and twice her age. But this is no grimy shop floor. Clean, quiet and highly automated, it’s a factory where the workers need to have as much comfort using a computer as they do using a screwdriver.

By the end of her four-year fellowship, when she will be 20, Johnson will have a foothold in the labor force and an associate’s degree – without the debt that has increasingly made many young people wary of college. She will also be earning about $34,000 a year, according to the Charlotte area Apprenticeship 2000 program, which Johnson joined.

Seimens, she said, will be where she makes a career. “I can go anywhere – to Australia and Brazil and back,” she said. “I will still get to travel. That is the goal. But I plan on staying with Siemens. I have no reason to ever leave.”

Programs like the one offered by Siemens and other companies are small – just five or six new recruits a year in Siemens’ case. But the potential has caught the eye of U.S. policymakers and corporate executives. The German Embassy recently launched a “Skills Initiative” in the United States after hearing how German companies struggled to find workers for their highly automated factories and have been promoting the system in talks with U.S. corporations and local chambers of commerce.

To replicate the German apprenticeship system in the United States, however, would require a cultural shift away from viewing late adolescence as a time of exploration, and perhaps even away from the value associated with a higher education that is both broad and broadly accessible.

The norms of U.S. companies would also have to change to make apprenticeship programs work on a large scale, said Bill Dillon, the community college’s associate dean. Among U.S. companies, he said, managers expect job applicants to arrive with skills already perfected and are hesitant to make the commitment – an investment of several tens of thousands of dollars – to shepherd a teenager through years of training and community college and into a job, paying them a full-time hourly wage all the while. “We have trouble thinking out four quarters, let alone four years,” he said.