It is estimated that by 2030 the US will have 2.1 million unfilled jobs in manufacturing. Skilled workers will also be needed to carry out President Biden’s infrastructure investment programme, which ranges from building roads and bridges to installing electric vehicle charging stations and broadband. While they may have differed on the details, Presidents Obama, Trump and Biden all recognised that addressing the US’s skill shortages required the revival of an apprenticeship system that has fallen into decline.
To help meet this skills shortage, over the last few years, Dr Johann Fortwengel has been working with German multinational businesses, US small and medium enterprises and policy makers in both countries. His focus has been to understand how Germany’s much-admired apprenticeship system could best be translated to the US.
His initial research focussed on how German multinationals with operations in the US set up local apprenticeship programmes. He found that they often teamed up with local colleges to provide the classroom-based elements of the apprentices’ learning, as well as with other firms in the region to offer a collaboratively developed programme.
Dr Fortwengel then examined how this approach could be adapted by small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs). SMEs are a crucial part of the picture as they are typically responsible for just under half of new job creation in the US. However, while apprentices could be a suitable solution for their skills needs, they are often deterred by the cost and complexity of creating apprenticeship programmes. He found that inter-firm apprenticeship networks were effective in allowing firms to share these burdens and had the further advantage of allowing the partners to rotate apprentices between them to broaden their experience.
Dr Fortwengel also found that tensions could sometimes arise in these networks. The businesses involved were competing locally for the same talent, may have slightly different technical needs, and were generally of different sizes, giving some more weight than others. To address these issues, he recommended establishing strong governance and rules for the apprenticeship network from the outset, and potentially even the installation of a third party to oversee its smooth running.
Alongside close partnerships with apprenticeship networks to conduct his research, Dr Fortwengel also worked to improve awareness of the network solution and his findings on the best ways to operate them. As a result of this activity, he influenced the provision of financial support for networks in the US and contributed to changes in the way one prominent network was run.
For example, he was commissioned by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research to undertake a market demand study, which subsequently resulted in new financial support being made available for German multinationals wishing to grow existing apprenticeship networks in the US or create new ones.
His work with the German American Chamber of Commerce Southern region supported the growth of their apprentice network activity in Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama and Texas. As a result, the number of inter-organisational networks managed by the German American Chamber of Commerce increased from one in 2016 to four in 2019, with three more launched in 2020.
Finally, the research led to the improved governance of one prominent network in the US, the Michigan Advanced Technician Training Program. This network of 20 active firms and 55 apprentices had suffered from the administrative and decision-making burden on the partner firms. Encouraged by the findings of Dr Fortwengel’s research, the network hired the German American Chamber of Commerce as a third-party organisation to alleviate these issues.
Dr Fortwengel’s research has provided SMEs and other organisations that want to develop apprenticeship programmes with a firm evidence base to pursue the network approach. In doing so, it has contributed to a growth of shared apprenticeship schemes which are helping to address the US’s future skills needs and giving many individuals a new opportunity to fulfil their potential.