Building Skills and Experience Through Apprenticeship

When Sarah Jung put on her traditional Bavarian dress a few weeks ago, it wasn’t to celebrate Oktoberfest in her hometown of Mertingen, Germany.  It was to represent the city of Munich at a trade show in Las Vegas, where Sarah is currently completing a yearlong fellowship as a participant in the 39th Congress-Bundestag Young Exchange for Young Professionals.  Sarah completed an apprenticeship in Germany as an events management professional and is putting her skills to good use in her U.S. host community.  She has already secured a job working at the famous Caesar’s Palace on the Las Vegas Strip, an opportunity she never imagined she would receive when she chose her career path three years ago.  “When I was applying for jobs here in Las Vegas, I talked to many HR representatives about my credentials in event management. All of them were very interested in the German apprenticeship system, and their reaction was really positive. It makes a big difference if you have already gained some work experience instead of coming directly from college,” Sarah says. 

That difference can be measured financially as well.  According to the U.S. Department of Labor, 93% of apprentices who complete a Registered Apprenticeship in the United States retain employment with their apprenticeship company, with an average annual salary of $77,000.1  By comparison, the average starting salary for someone with a bachelor’s degree is $68,000 per year.2  Apprentices have little, if any, educational debt, compared to the average of about $30,000 in student loan debt that bachelor’s degree holders have to bear.3  This fact, coupled with an acute skills shortage in many developed countries, has led the Department of Labor to heavily promote its “Registered Apprenticeship Program”, which establishes nationally-recognized credentials and standards across the U.S. for the first time 

While this type of accreditation is somewhat new in the United States, it has been part of Germany’s internationally renowned dual-education apprenticeship system for centuries. Registered apprenticeships in Germany exist for a wide range of professions, from automotive mechatronics to office employees, bank workers to chimney sweeps, masons to laboratory technicians, the career paths available are as varied as the training is thorough. The “Made in Germany” seal of quality is due in large part to a highly skilled workforce that draws on the apprenticeship system, uniting hands-on learning in companies with theoretical learning in the classroom. 

Laura (right) with U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell and Teresa Purcell from Longview Impact

Another German apprentice currently living in Longview, WA, Laura Sabbedotti, recently completed her apprenticeship at Volkswagen. “It gave me huge insights into how all departments in a leading global company are connected to each other.  Apprenticeships help you to grow beyond your comfort zone because they present you with challenges that require you to work together in a team while taking responsibility for your own tasks.” 

Laura also shares her experiences in the German dual apprenticeship program with fellow students at her college in the U.S. “They love that it is so practical and affordable,” she continues. “German companies that have a strong presence in the U.S. (like Volkswagen) have been including aspects of the German model in their workforce development here for years. On top of that, the Registered Apprenticeship Program is working to create a nationwide credential system that ensures that the apprenticeship is recognized everywhere. Beyond what is required for the job, you learn so much about yourself while growing and gaining new skills.” 

Personal development and self-discovery are aspects of the apprenticeship experience that another young German, Christoph Brandl, cites as advantageous: “Apprentices build their self-esteem on the job, learning both the theoretical and practical aspects of their profession, so that they can work more effectively and precisely.”  Christoph, who completed his apprenticeship this year as a mechatronic at an official Mercedes-Benz dealer and auto shop in Germany, highlights the professional advantages of an apprenticeship as well.  “Apprentices come into contact with employees from all levels of the company hierarchy, which helps to pave inner-company career paths and establishes industry contacts to other companies in their field.” 

Christoph’s discussions with people in his host community of Cincinnati have highlighted some key differences in the traditional workforce development programs between the U.S. and Germany.  “A friend of mine who is a welder with his own business recently told me that he had to pay his former employer to receive training.  He said there is a shortage of qualified welders where he lives, and many companies that are hiring are unable to staff their positions.  I told him about the German dual apprenticeship system, and he said that a similar system throughout the U.S. would solve this problem, encouraging many more young welders to choose the profession.” 

Likewise, Christoph is convinced of the strong career prospects that a Registered Apprenticeship’s skilled training provides.  “I spoke with someone here in the U.S. who shared with me that many families can’t really afford paying for college,” he says.  “Their kids will often start working in a low-paying job where they don’t need special skills and will often stay in those low-paid jobs for years with little chance of climbing the career ladder.  This leads to many young people feeling unhappy in comparison to people in their same age who are working in a skilled field in which they received training.” 

Cultural Vistas has long recognized apprentices as an underrepresented group in international exchange. They have historically been excluded from many exchange programs available to their peers attending college or university.  Over the years, our organization has worked to promote an exchange of understanding of registered apprenticeships between the United States and Germany.  Through professional study tours for policymakers and educators, internship programs, and cultural immersion fellowships, Cultural Vistas has enabled thousands of individuals who have completed apprenticeships extend their professional and personal boundaries abroad. 

This year for National Apprenticeship Week, we are pleased to announce our launch of the German-American Workforce Development Program, which enables young German professionals currently pursuing an apprenticeship to complete internships in their career fields at host companies throughout the U.S.  In addition, Germans who have already completed an apprenticeship can participate in the Congress-Bundestag Youth Exchange for Young Professionals, which gives them a yearlong cultural immersion experience in the U.S. 

“It is our hope,” says Cultural Vistas CEO Jennifer Clinton, “that Cultural Vistas can provide even more international opportunities in the future to apprentices around the world. Adding a diversity of educational backgrounds and perspectives is key to finding solutions to the most pressing global challenges of our time. Please join us this National Apprenticeship Week in supporting Cultural Vistas’ Proclamation in Support of Registered Apprenticeships.”