BMW’s Success with Germany’s Apprenticeship Model

American employers have a lot to learn from Germany’s apprenticeship model. At least, that’s what BMW’s success at its production facility in Spartanburg, S.C. suggests. BMW is the biggest car exporter in the U.S., and at Spartanburg — its largest plant in the world — it employs 9,000 people and trains 100 apprentices at any one time.

Peter Wittig, Germany’s ambassador to the U.S., explained how the apprenticeship system works in a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed:

In Germany, half the graduates of high schools and junior high schools choose a track that combines training on the job with further education at a public vocational institution. This apprenticeship model is one reason why Germany has the lowest rate of youth unemployment in Europe and has been able to keep manufacturing jobs in the country.

The success of the German apprenticeship model, adds Wittig, builds on the conviction that it is an equivalent alternative to college education:

As high-wage countries, Germany and the U.S. face similar challenges in protecting existing production facilities and creating new manufacturing jobs. One of the most decisive factors for companies is whether they can find skilled and motivated workers, which is what apprenticeship programs provide.

In the future, artificial intelligence and other digital technologies will radically change American manufacturing.  The key to apprenticeship programs’ continued success will be the integration of digital skills, along with efforts to ensure workers are prepared for lifelong learning, says Wittig.

American companies that want to learn more about the German apprenticeship model can contact the German Embassy’s Skills Initiative.

BMW’s presence in South Carolina has inspired a state-wide program of apprenticeships that now range beyond manufacturing and the building trades to fields like nursing, pharmacy and IT.

Here in Minnesota, a number of apprenticeship initiatives on the German “dual training” model are underway. One is the Learn, Work, Earn project, carried out under the auspices of the Minnesota Advanced Manufacturing Partnership, a consortium of Minnesota State System (formerly MnSCU) colleges. South Central College, with Mankato and Faribault campuses, is the lead college in the consortium.

Learn, Work, Earn focuses on apprenticeships in advanced manufacturing — mechatronics, machining and welding. The program emphasizes a statewide core curriculum, employer-driven apprenticeships, and cooperative education opportunities that lead to industry-recognized credentials in manufacturing.

Our state needs many more innovative apprenticeship initiatives if it is to meet workforce needs going forward.