Heidelberg’s Apprenticeship Program –Polischuk

Well, happy 2013! I’d say, Happy New Year!, but by the time you read this column the happiness of the new year would have ended—most likey by the time you woke up on January 1 and heard more about the fiscal cliff (or is it poltergeist).

I finished up 2012 on a good note, taking part in a 4-day program hosted by Heidelberg at its headquarters in Germany. The executive management team at Heidelberg provided journalists with a wealth of information and experiences during the visit. One of the particular highlights was a tour of several halls at the manufacturing operation in Wiesloch-Walldorf. Having worked in manufacturing for a number of years, I have a particular appreciation for what it takes to work in the operating side of things.

Although the plant was impressive on just about every level, the one image that will definitely stay with me was to see where Heidelberg was training its apprentices. Of more than 5,000 employees at the plant, about 5 percent are in the apprentice program, which is a highly competitive 3.5-year program that young people can enter as early as 15 years old. There were about five or six work areas within my view, with three to five apprentices working at each location. It’s hard to describe, but there was just a sense of serious activity and focus at each table. I could see that there was some side talk as they worked, with the occasional glance at the visitors, but there was such a clear sense of purpose.

Although this image was was with me from the start, two additional pieces of information cemented the thought in my mind. The first occurred on my long plane ride home as I read the Schumpeter business column in the December 8, 2012 issue of The Economist titled, “The great mismatch—Skills shortages are getting worse even as youth unemployment reaches record levels.” It was pointing out a seeming mismatch between educators and employers, at one point stating, “The best way to do this [bring them together] is to revamp vocational education, which outside the German-speaking world has been treated as the ginger stepchild of the education system.”

The second piece of information came from a PMMI report, Vision 2020, with information gathered from manufacturers during Pack Expo. Of ten challenges listed, the first was: Workforce Issues: Good help is hard to find. It stated: “From engineering to operations, manufacturers say it’s difficult to recruit and retain employees who have the technologies and workplace attitudes they require.”

There’s a quote you’ve probably seen before: “Every problem is an opportunity in disguise.” Opportunity knocks!

Tom Polischuk, Editor-in-Chief

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