Dual Training Made in Austria – the Blum Apprenticeship 2000 Program

bridges vol. 38, August 2013 / Feature Articles

By Caroline Adenberger

In 1995 the Austrian company Blum, a leading manufacturer of functional hardware for the cabinet and furniture industry, collaborated with Swiss industrial component supplier Daetwyler Corporation to start a pilot program in North Carolina for training their own workforce. Both companies had served the US market from their US subsidiaries in the Piedmont region of North Carolina for several years, and they noticed a need for trained craftsmen to meet their production goals and quality standards. Out of this need was born the idea for an "in-house training program." Their program, "Apprenticeship 2000," has developed over the last two decades into an award-winning nationally recognized apprenticeship program.

Apprenticeship 2000 has been offering high school students from the Piedmont region opportunities in technical career fields and employment after their graduation. In return, local employers benefit from a trained workforce with four years of company-related training and around 1600 hours of work-relevant theoretical training from Central Piedmont Community College.

Photo of Karl Rudisser. bridges spoke with Karl Rudisser, president and CEO of Blum Inc., who has been responsible for the development of the Blum facility in Statesville, North Carolina, since its inception in 1978. Blum Inc. has US$200 million in projected sales this year and employs a workforce of some 375 employees in its 450,000-square foot North Carolina facility. The majority of Blum Inc.'s products are "Made in the USA," in highly automated manufacturing processes that require highly skilled technicians.

Rudisser shared with bridges some of the lessons he has learned on how to "grow your own talent" and what it takes to create one of the most exemplary apprenticeship programs in the United States.

bridges: What is Apprenticeship 2000 and how does it work?

Rudisser: The Apprenticeship 2000 program is an 8000-hour program that spans four years of technical training. We hire our students from local high schools. Upon graduation from the apprenticeship program, students earn an AAS degree in manufacturing technology, and a Journeyman's Certificate awarded by the state of North Carolina.

  Apprenticeship 2000 Partner Companies (and the year they joined)
  • Blum Inc. – 1994
• Daetwyler Corporation – 1995
• Ameritech Die & Mold – 1996
• Sarstedt – 1996
• Timken – 1996
• Pfaff – 2008
• Siemens – 2011
• Chiron – 2012

At graduation, each apprentice will have put in approximately 6400 hours at one of the eight sponsorship companies (see the information box at the right). Blum Inc. decided early on to partner with other like-minded companies in the region that were facing the same training needs for technicians. North Carolina requires a minimum of 12 students (class requirement numbers vary between states in the US) for an apprenticeship program, so we were looking for other companies willing to join forces with us and invest in their future labor force. Our companies, which are all in the metal or plastics industry, don't compete with each other to get students into this program but all send our students to the same community college. The supplemental company instruction reinforces the students' classroom examples with experience in real-life situations. At Blum Inc., the company training is broken into three distinct categories, each with its own subcategories. The three main categories are: Section One – Basic metal working/bench work, Section Two – Machining (mill, lathe, CNC), and Section Three – Specialization. Also, the Apprenticeship 2000 program has been under constant review by its company members' board since its inception. This board decides in quarterly meetings what changes should be implemented and gets updates on the changes that have been made.

bridges: Did the fact that a highly skilled and motivated workforce is necessary in order to compete in the economy influence your decision to establish an apprenticeship program in the United States?

Rudisser: Very much so. In the early 1990s, when we began to manufacture in North Carolina, we mainly needed technical personnel in metal stamping, injection molding, automated pick and place, machine assembly, and powder coating. Many of those technicians and engineers came over from our Austrian headquarters and only worked here for a year or two, so we decided to start training our own technicians locally and the idea of starting an apprenticeship program was born.

bridges: Do you find it difficult to get candidates to enter your program, based on the blue-collar stigma that is often attached to "manufacturing" jobs? And how do you know who makes a suitable candidate for becoming an apprentice?

Rudisser: We hire our students straight out of the local high schools. We cooperate with the Lincoln County School System, the Gaston County schools, Catawba County schools, Charlotte/Mecklenburg schools, Cabarrus County schools, and the Iredell/Statesville schools. The key people at these high schools are counselors and math teachers who screen the students before we come to class and give a presentation about our apprenticeship program. After the presentation, the students are asked to fill out an online (apprenticeship2000.com) survey. The ones who like what they saw then attend an open house at our company. We require students to come to this event with at least one of their parents. After the presentation and the plant tour, it's actually often the parent who wants their kid to work at Blum.

The next step is called "Orientation." For the first time, these high school kids get the chance to work on a small project at Blum. There are some tests involved, and a good attendance record is also very important. After these steps have been completed, we hold a "selection" meeting. We always select 40 percent more students to enter our paid summer internship than we actually have room for. After this process, we offer the best students a place in our apprenticeship program. The first year of the apprenticeship coincides with their senior year in high school, so they are only working with us in the afternoons. Full-time employment only starts in their second year at Blum.

I'd also like to add that one of the Apprenticeship 2000 program's main strengths is our affiliation with the Central Piedmont Community College (CPCC) in Charlotte, which is the third-largest community college in the US. Together with CPCC, we developed our mechanical and electrical mechatronics curricula. Blum Inc. holds various advisory board functions at CPCC and helped the school make good investments and decisions to obtain new equipment.

bridges: This sounds like Blum takes a big time and financial investment – and risk – to train its workforce. Don't you worry that you have made this financial investment in these young apprentices only to have them leave Blum after they graduate?

Rudisser: Not really. First of all, our apprentices get to know Blum as a company very well after spending several years with us. Blum offers security and stability to its employees, as well as a much-appreciated work culture and good working conditions. We pay them during their apprenticeship years and offer them a competitive salary upwards of US$34,000 in their selected career fields after they graduate from the program.

Inside the Apprenticeship 2000 program, each partner company is responsible for their own training investments. At Blum, we invest approximately US$160,000 into a typical student. Training is expensive, but the lack of a qualified workforce would be just as costly in other ways. Having well-trained technicians makes each person, and the company, much more flexible in adapting to changes in trends, market conditions, and machine performance. Based on our historical data, more than 80 percent of our apprentices stayed on with Blum after finishing their apprenticeship.

I'd like to stress that at no time before, during, or after graduation from the apprenticeship program are students asked to sign or to commit to employment. Our students stay of their own free will with no pressure by the company to do so. Take a look at the following picture: These are graduates from our inaugural Apprenticeship 2000 class of 1995. In 2013 (from left to right), Shawn is a maintenance manager, Spencer is a manufacturing engineer, Jim is an apprenticeship trainer, and Chris is an injection molding technician – and all are still with Blum.

Graduates from the inaugural Apprenticeship 2000 program's class of 1995. Graduates from the inaugural Apprenticeship 2000 program's class of 1995, seen again in 2013.
Retention of Apprentices at Blum: Graduates from the inaugural Apprenticeship 2000 program's class of 1995 (left), seen again in 2013 (right).

 

bridges: What would be your advice to other companies or regions thinking about establishing a local apprenticeship program similar to the Apprenticeship 2000 program? Is there a minimum size necessary for a company, in order for them to afford such a program?

Rudisser: I think there are a few elements crucial to success: First, find the right local high schools to partner with and a community college to establish a curriculum. Second, particularly if you are a small- or medium-sized company, find like-minded companies in your area to form partnerships for such an apprenticeship program. We also cooperate closely with the North Carolina Department of Labor. Last, but not least, identify the right mentors in your company to train the students. It's important to ask your best technicians to help develop and train the students; give them the time and resources they need to do that, and then support their efforts as much as you can. Also, make sure you have the support and commitment from top management to ensure the lasting success of an apprenticeship program.

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The author, Caroline Adenberger, is the editor of bridges and the deputy director of the Office of Science & Technology at the Embassy of Austria in Washington, DC.