Learn and Earn at BMW

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A German car maker could be showing America the way toward a better manufacturing future.

After decades of sending American jobs to other shores, a few years ago our companies began bringing those jobs back home. In 2012, there were multiple stories of how manufacturing was “repatriating” many operations, restoring jobs for skilled workers here in the U.S. According to Bloomberg, Boston Consulting Group estimated more than a third of all American manufacturers with revenues over $1 billion were planning to return production to the U.S. Nearly half of all corporations with revenues of more than $10 billion professed to have the same plan.

It was a wake-up call of sorts because we quickly realized we’d fallen behind in our ability to train workers for these new jobs.

Manufacturing isn’t what it used to be. At the start of the industrial revolution, factories employed the uneducated and the unskilled to do repetitive, menial work. As technology replaces and supplements human labor, manufacturing has become much more sophisticated. More and more of these roles require advanced technological know-how. This is a problem. In the decades during which we lost much of our job base to the Far East, Mexico and other foreign regions, our trade schools fell behind. The good news is that many companies are now taking it upon themselves to create the training once provided mostly by trade schools.

South Carolina is finding new ways to prepare workers for skilled manufacturing jobs, in a partnership between government and business. BMW is the program’s biggest partner, partly because back in Europe apprenticeship programs like this are a traditional that goes back two centuries. In its manufacturing operation in South Carolina, BMW uses 1,400 robots to build luxury SUVs, and yet, with all that automation, it still employs 8,000 workers to keep the system humming. It trains many of those workers on the job, through a “dual-track” program of learning while you earn certified by the Apprenticeship, USA (a division of the U.S. Department of Labor).

The man who runs the Apprentice Carolina program, Brad Neese, told PBS:

We have built this thing from 777 apprentices to over 10,000 now. 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.

The idea is simple: hire workers who aren’t yet up to speed with the skill set required for contemporary manufacturing and then fast-track their technical education. With starting salaries as high as $60,000, these jobs are a dream come true for young people just starting out as well as for mid-career workers who are looking for a better future. The apprenticeship not only gives them a significant wage, it pays them the same hourly rate for the time they spend in the classroom. In the twenty years since BMW located its high-tech plant in Spartanburg, South Carolina, it has generated an estimated total of more than 23,000 jobs in the state. Since September 1994 more than 1.6 million BMW vehicles have been manufactured for customers around the world and total capital investment now amounts to US$ 4.6 billion.

Its apprenticeship program is making BMW one of the most sought-after employers for South Carolina students in high school and college. It isn’t just a job, it’s a continuing education in engineering. As Neese put it: “They want to get into theoretical knowledge, not of the iambic pentameter, but theoretical knowledge of Ohms Law.” Before BMW arrived, Spartanburg offered local graduates a future mostly in the military or at Wal-Mart.

This program has created a blueprint for how employers can hire and keep employees for skilled positions at a time when these companies aren’t served well by our educational system. And over the past five years alone, apprenticeships throughout the U.S. have declined by almost half. Meanwhile, BMW has had no trouble growing its plant here, with a huge expansion of the plant in 2010.

What BMW has done in South Carolina offers a template to address multiple roadblocks to economic growth: inadequate education, the decline of American manufacturing, and income inequality. In all respects it shows how we can revive and grow economic sectors we’ve all but given up on for so many years. Can’t this happen in your state as well?

Peter Georgescu is the author of The Constant Choice. He can be found at Good Reads.

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