A BMW engineer: the U.S. has fallen out of touch with the job market

Editor’s Note: At BMW’s only American plant, in Spartanburg, South Carolina, the German car company has implemented a very German tradition — the apprenticeship — in what they call their Scholars Program. (Watch more about their program in the Making Sen$e segment below). BMW mechanical engineer Moritz Kippenberger is himself a transplant from Germany, having arrived in Spartanburg in 2012. Paul Solman speaks with Kippenberger about the differences between American and German workplace culture, and in particular, what each values.

The United States, Kippenberger notes, is unique in that workers are constantly striving for higher education and more training, even on top of their day jobs. But Americans are also more obsessed with design, whereas in Germany, the value is on production. From Kippenberger’s perspective, the American labor market could learn from that sense of pride that Germans have in manufacturing a physical product.

Simone Pathe, Making Sen$e Editor

BMW calls their American apprentices “scholars.” Why don’t you call it an apprenticeship program?

I think we want to make clear that this is not the identical thing that we have in Germany. We don’t want to just copy something that has been successful in Germany. We want it to be unique and adapt it to the environment. And that’s why I think Werner Eikenbusch, [BMW’s head of workforce development for the Americas], came up with the name. I think he also mentioned to me at one time that there was some misperception with apprenticeship being very traditional, and we wanted it to be more modern and to have a tech feeling to it because it does deal with modern technology.

Who do you get for this program? How do you get them?

Well, we have a manager who is dedicated to this program and he has a team, and they do the outreach in the community, in the region. They go to the schools in the area, and talk to students, explains to them what are the opportunities, what’s this program about, what’s the job like in the future and how you get in.

What’s the difference between young people doing this in Germany and the young people you get here?

I think that the major difference is that it’s a traditional part of our education system in Germany. It’s something, depending on what your parents did, that has been passed on. So it’s more by default than it is by choice as it is here.

Is there more status associated with being an apprentice in Germany than being a scholar with BMW here?

That is pretty hard for me to tell. I’ve only lived in the U.S. for two years and the last time, early in my life, so it’s pretty hard to tell what the external perception is. I would think, though, that just by the number of people that are participating in an apprenticeship program in Germany and just the variety of jobs that you can actually get to through an apprenticeship, that it is perceived as a valuable education.

And here?

I think it’s more unique. It’s more by choice, but especially if you relate it to BMW. There is a good value and good status that goes with it, but I think the challenge is also related to the manufacturing environment. The state has a history with the textile industry and that’s what people still relate manufacturing to, and they need to understand that there’s great coherence of having a job where you actually have a product at the end of the day. That’s positive. And that it’s a high-technical environment, and that it’s in no way something that doesn’t come as a challenge and doesn’t have its unique value proposition, and doesn’t have the opportunity of growth in all of it.

But in the United States, a manufacturing career on the line doesn’t have much status.

I don’t disagree. I don’t. But I think there’s an opportunity to change the perception, and I think there is a value for the nation, as well as for the companies, to change that perception — to say, it’s not just a dull job of doing the same thing again and again, even if you have the same product over a life cycle of seven years. It changes almost every year. There are big changes taking place, multiple times over the lifetime of that product, and then the way we produce it changes almost every single quarter. We re-evaluate the way we produce the vehicle every other month, just to see if there is a more efficient way to approach it.

If you buy a BMW, you don’t just get three choices or get to choose the color. There are literally millions of opportunities to build your unique car, and that’s the same thing that the associate does. Every single vehicle they build is different. They give it the final touch and I think there’s pride that can come with it.

But in America, you’re supposed to go to college.

I get that. But I think we also need to recognize college might not be the best fit for every single person. America is also the land of options, the land of opportunity and variety, and variety of the educational system can be a part of that.

I do think it’s great for everybody to aim for the highest educational degree that they feel comfortable with. I went for mechanical engineering. I’m happy with that, but I also always had a Plan B in place. You know, if this wouldn’t have worked out for me, I would have become a cook. I would have taken an apprenticeship. It worked out fine for me. I was successful getting my degree, but that was never a given. I never knew, coming out of school, that I was ready for it.

Would you have felt OK about having been a cook?

Absolutely. I love eating. It would have been my second choice. I had multiple options. I actually had an opportunity to go for architecture and for mathematics and for mechanical engineering. But I never was great in school. I was OK. I was a decent student, but I never knew if I was ready for this.

But as a cook, wouldn’t you have felt you were of somewhat lower status than somebody with a Ph.D. from Aachen?

Yeah, probably. And probably everybody needs to make that decision for themselves. But in the end, it’s also about coherence. Some people in my family, they took an apprenticeship and they were very happy with it and they have something in hand as a product every single day, and they know what they’re working for. Whereas I’m part of an administrational organization. I create paper. So who’s lucky? Who’s happy?

What surprised you about the American workforce?

I had the opportunity to be in the U.S. during high school for a year as an international student in Templeton, Massachusetts.

The most positive thing that differentiated both cultures is that everybody is striving for continuous education [in the U.S.], and that’s probably one of the downfalls of our education system. You get a pretty good starting education, but we stop there. From there, it’s just hands on, whereas here, you have people that work 2,000 hours and sometimes even more, and they still go for a college degree. I mean, how big is that? I don’t know anybody in Germany who does a full time job, probably has a family, and still is striving for a degree in something bigger. I think that’s something that’s unique to the U.S. culture, which should always be perceived as of great value.

Doesn’t your apprenticeship, or scholar program here, run to counter to that?

I don’t think so because it gives them an initial start. But we have people who actually decided at the end of the program not to go for a job with BMW, but to go back to college because they learned that they enjoy learning and striving for more, and so I don’t see that as countering it in any way.

And some of our scholars that have successfully made it to a permanent position, they work with us for a couple of years and then might recognize that they are up for more. And they might strive for an additional degree.

What has disappointed you about America or surprised you in a negative way? There’s got to be something, now?

Probably it’s that in recognizing the differences in the value system and talking to students, I recognize everybody’s striving for design. If you talk to a lot of students, they want to be part of designing a new product. There is less pride in being part of producing something. And that’s probably something that is different between the two cultures.

Coming from a German culture, we take pride in producing and having a product at the end of the day. The German slogan was always, “made in Germany,” whereas on the back side of the Apple product it’s, “designed in California, not made in California.”

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