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BMW apprenticeship program trains workers to rise through the ranks without 4-year degree

June 4, 2014 at 8:41 PM EDT
The BMW factory in Spartanburg, South Carolina, is luring workers with a program that offers part-time work, an all-expenses paid associates degree and near guarantee of a job and future education down the road. Economics correspondent Paul Solman reports on how such apprenticeships, modeled after European programs, may boost employment and help tailor curricula to employers’ needs.

JUDY WOODRUFF: On Friday, we’re going to get the latest snapshot from the federal government about the state of the job market. A separate payroll report issued today found private companies created almost 180,000 jobs in May, fewer than in April. The unemployment rate remains very high for those under the age of 25 — it’s in the double digits — and at higher rates for teens without degrees.

The NewsHour’s economics correspondent, Paul Solman, has a report about one program from an auto manufacturer that offers possibilities for some of those workers.

It’s part of his reporting on Making Sense of financial news.

PAUL SOLMAN: The BMW factory in Spartanburg, South Carolina, BMW’s only U.S. auto plant, built 20 years ago, mainly for access to the American market, it’s now the sole production facility for their popular X model line of luxury crossover SUVs, 1,200 vehicles a day.

But BMWs, and the occasional Teutonic executive, aren’t the only German imports around here. There are also apprenticeships.

WERNER EIKENBUSCH, Head of Work Force Development, Americas, BMW: I actually grew up in Germany in a little village, and my daddy and my mom were of a blue-collar background, so for them college wasn’t something that they had really envisioned for me.

PAUL SOLMAN: And so Werner Eikenbusch, BMW’s head of workforce development for the Americas, left high school in 10th grade for an apprenticeship, combining on-the-job training with vocational school.

WERNER EIKENBUSCH: This German dual system has a long history in Europe. It goes back hundreds of years, so it’s really very much embedded and it is actually a recognized, you could call it educational pathway that, for whatever reason, didn’t make it over into the U.S.

PAUL SOLMAN: Eikenbusch later became an engineer, rose through BMW’s ranks. A few years ago, unable to find enough skilled workers to fill jobs in the Spartanburg plant, he helped set up an apprenticeship program modeled on the ones back home.

At first, it was far from an easy sell. For one thing, German apprenticeships are associated with unions, a no-no in this famously right-to-work state. For the record, the BMW plant is not unionized.

For another thing:

RYAN CHILDERS, Apprentice and Associate Training Manager, BMW: There’s a little bit of a stigma with going into a manufacturing-type career.

PAUL SOLMAN: Ryan Childers, a former production worker himself, now oversees the apprenticeship program.

Where does this stigma come from, do you think?

RYAN CHILDERS: Maybe 30 years ago, the textile industry, or industries of that nature, a pretty dark environment to work in, dirty environment.

PAUL SOLMAN: Unlike modern auto plants.

So Childers hit the recruiting road, and still does, nearly every week, pitching the program at community colleges and high schools. At Greenville High School’s career day, the main competition was the military, Wal-Mart, and a small local chain of funeral homes.

The BMW program looked pretty good to these seniors.

RYAN CHILDERS: It’s $12 starting out and goes up to $14.50.

PAUL SOLMAN: Part-time work while getting an all-expenses-paid associates degree at one of three area technical colleges, with the near guarantee of a job and further education down the road.

STUDENT: I really got in touch with BMW because I like the program they have.

STUDENT: You don’t get too many jobs start at about $12. That’s great pay for kids our age.

PAUL SOLMAN: It was a similar pitch that got Amanda Echols’ attention while attending a radiology program.

AMANDA ECHOLS, Assembly Production Associate, BMW Manufacturing: They pay for your college, first of all, so you will get a degree when you’re done. You make good money while going to college. I just could not see anybody turning it down really.

PAUL SOLMAN: But most people would turn it down.

AMANDA ECHOLS: I don’t think they really understand what it is. I think when they hear manufacturing, they think dirty, sweaty, nasty. I mean, I keep my hands clean all day long. They don’t get dirty at all.

PAUL SOLMAN: It’s the robots that get dirty here; 1,400 of them rule the roost, making much of the plant seem on automatic pilot. But there are also 8,000 jobs for humans, starting at $15 an hour, plus benefits.

BRIAN ORDONEZ, Body Shop Production Associate, BMW Manufacturing: You get paid pretty good to be working on the line here.

PAUL SOLMAN: Apprentice Brian Ordonez hopes to make robotics his career, thinks it’s not so much threat as opportunity.

BRIAN ORDONEZ: You need a person to tell that robot what to do. And you need that person to fix it.

PAUL SOLMAN: Well, maybe you will have robots that fix the other robots.

BRIAN ORDONEZ: What robot are you going to have to fix that robot that’s fixing the other robots? No, you need people; you need people to fix it.

PAUL SOLMAN: Well, for the next few years anyway. Since even the robots still need to wear protective sleeves in the paint shop, I suited up.

DUSTIN REID, Paint Shop Production Associate, BMW Manufacturing: You look just stunning.

PAUL SOLMAN: Thank you. I have always wanted a white suit.

Dustin Reid may be sartorially indiscriminate, but he knows from dirty jobs. After high school and the Marines, he spent two years working in a scrapyard, then four as a supervisor in a poultry processing plant he’d just as soon forget.

DUSTIN REID: Manufacturing’s really, really growing right now.

PAUL SOLMAN: But isn’t the American dream to get a four-year college degree and then get a good job?

DUSTIN REID: There’s a lot of students nowadays that graduate with a four-year degree and can’t find work. But with this two-year degree, I’m able to come and get a career for the rest of my life at a premier manufacturing company. It pretty much speaks for itself.

PAUL SOLMAN: Economist Bob Lerman, who tagged along with us in South Carolina, has been studying youth unemployment for decades. Right now, even college grads under age 25 have a 50 percent chance of being un- or under-employed, and the long-term prospects are much worse for the one-third of young Americans without any college at all.

Apprenticeships, Lerman thinks, provide a ray of hope.

ROBERT LERMAN, American University: It’s the most promising thing I have seen for the broad problem of youth that are not succeeding in a four-year college.

BRAD NEESE, Director, Apprenticeship Carolina: We talk all the time about people without jobs and jobs without people.

PAUL SOLMAN: Brad Neese runs Apprenticeship Carolina, a state-funded office, founded in 2007, that helps employers set up registered apprenticeship programs. To sweeten the pot, South Carolina offers a $1,000-per-year tax credit per apprentice.

But the companies bear most of the educational and training costs, which can run well over $50,000 a head.

BRAD NEESE: We have built this thing from 777 apprentices to over 10,000 now. When we started it, we only had 90 companies. We now have 650 today. The reason we’re growing is because the businesses are saying, we need a pipeline of talent. We need to grow our own. We can no longer find talent in the open market.

PAUL SOLMAN: Even as U.S. unemployment has remained stubbornly high, employers, especially in manufacturing, complain they can’t find enough qualified workers.

So Apprenticeship South Carolina helps tailor the state technical college curriculum to each employer’s needs, like this mechatronics program at Greenville Tech used by BMW and others.

Do you worry at all that with industry so specifically running the show, it’s somehow compromising the educational mission?

BRAD NEESE: So what if they’re not reading Shakespeare? These guys want to work with their hands. They want to get into the theoretical knowledge, not of the iambic pentameter. They want to get into the theoretical knowledge of Ohm’s law.

BRANDON RICHARDS, Apprentice, United Tool and Mold: I’m more of a hands-on person, not sitting in a desk, writing and looking at a computer screen.

PAUL SOLMAN: Brandon Richards is an apprentice at United Tool and Mold in Easley, which supplies BMW and other German companies, has modeled its new apprenticeship program on theirs.

MAN: It starts out with a paid associate’s degree, and we also pay for their time while they sit in the class. If their hourly rate at the shop is $10 an hour, then they’re going to make that $10 an hour while they’re sitting in school.

PAUL SOLMAN: A third-generation tool and die maker, production manager Jeremy Arnett is a true believer in apprenticeships. When he started here 16 years ago:

MAN: I didn’t know the difference between a drill and a reamer and an end mill. I see myself in those young kids and all they want is an opportunity, but don’t have the skill sets.

PAUL SOLMAN: But why, if apprenticeships are booming in the Palmetto State, are they lagging everywhere else, down 40 percent nationwide in the last five years?

WERNER EIKENBUSCH: I think a lot of it has to do with really the mind-set. Are you willing to think long-term and invest on the front end, because you’re going to have the return on investment through the career of a successful and productive employee? It’s just you have an up-front cost.

PAUL SOLMAN: Bob Lerman suggests another reason.

BOB LERMAN: Unless you allow everybody to do the same thing.

PAUL SOLMAN: Go to college, that is.

BOB LERMAN: Yes — go to college — you are reducing equality. And people are very uncomfortable saying that my child will go to college, but your child might not go to college. And then there are people who don’t even start college. And what are their options? They’re not very good.

PAUL SOLMAN: So perhaps apprenticeship should be one of them.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And Paul has more with BMW’s Werner Eikenbusch, who gives his unique perspective on management styles as a German working in the U.S. That’s on Making Sense.