When Siemens needed to hire 1,500 people for a new gas turbine plant in Charlotte, N.C., the company realized the applicants were lacking the skills needed to do the jobs.
Barbara Humpton, who leads Siemens’ U.S. operations, spoke to Politico about the structured apprenticeship model the company conjured up to fill the skills gap.
Humpton believes the company’s approach could serve as a model for other companies to follow, and she is urging them to invest in training — particularly in light of the corporate tax cut.
“What we really need for today’s manufacturing environment is what we’re calling middle skills, a combination of those hands-on traditional trades along with some higher-level school learning,” Humpton told Politico. “And so what we did in Charlotte was team up with the community college and they created a course called Mechatronics, and it gave people who were accepted into this apprenticeship program the opportunity to — unbelievably — be paid while they’re going to school, be paid while they’re working and then ultimately graduate from an apprenticeship program with full-time jobs that pay well — and no debt.”
The students have been engaged and motivated to succeed, which has led to higher productivity for Siemens, she said.
At a Department of Commerce roundtable last year about workforce development, the issue of apprenticeships arose.
“The thing I think that surprised me the most was, there are entrepreneurs putting together programs like this but that are not called apprenticeships,” said Humpton. “They’re called alternative learning models.”
Four-year institutions like Texas A&M are also modifying their offerings to encourage “lifelong learning,” said Humpton.
“I think what’s going on is folks not necessarily wanting to label programs as apprenticeships, but still trying to find ways to provide the same benefits, the combination of hands-on experience with some academic training as part of the program,” said Humpton.
As digital technology and automation proliferate, the skills needed by Siemens have evolved.
“A company like Siemens that has traditionally been in industrials and manufacturing, we’re now competing for talent with the high-tech industry, as well,” said Humpton.
Technology changes so quickly, it’s difficult for universities to keep up.
“I think four-year institutions can very happily focus on the kind of traditional things they’ve done, giving people a really well-rounded background, teaching the arts, teaching humanities, teaching people for context and appreciation,” said Humpton. “What we’re looking to more is for the career-technical education system to get people ready for the next job. We recognize a huge responsibility to offer people learning opportunities as they go.”
Siemens is now offering online programs inside hands-on training, and tuition reimbursement for those seeking additional education and training.
“A good example of that is that if someone wants to really study cybersecurity in a deep way, we’re happy to do tuition reimbursement programs for those things that are going to be really essential to our success in the future,” said Humpton.
Automation has changed roles people play in manufacturing, said Humpton.
“We’re witnessing real shifts,” said Humpton. “There are communities that have been terribly hurt by this shift in demand for the products they manufacture. I think folks really are having to ask some really hard questions right now. Is my future here? And in what way will I play in the economy that is changing as we speak?”
“This idea of recognizing that there’s been a white collar/blue collar divide,” added Humpton. “Now, we can really focus on the ‘new collar,‘ the middle skills that we need that are going to give people — the middle class — a real leg up.”