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American manufacturers have been cutting payrolls for more than 30 years. They've done it through automation. They've done it by sending work overseas. The factory jobs that remain in this country require more skills, and it can be hard to fill some of those jobs. Many economists and policymakers believe they see a fix here, which could address the problem of wage stagnation. Their solution is apprenticeships, an old style of training for new, tough jobs. Apprenticeships combine on-the-job training with targeted schoolwork. As part of American Made, our look at the changing face in manufacturing, NPR's Uri Berliner visited one state, South Carolina, where apprenticeships are being tried.
URI BERLINER, BYLINE: John Harris spent six years in the Air Force and dealt with his share of challenging situations, some of them in Afghanistan. But leaving the service last summer...
JOHN HARRIS: I was terrified.
BERLINER: He and his wife were moving to South Carolina. He had no job prospects. Civilian life was a giant unknown.
HARRIS: I'm an adult. I'm disciplined. I have leadership skills. So I knew I had all these skills to offer, but I didn't know if anybody would want me. Everybody says they'll hire veterans, but that doesn't mean they can hire you if there's no jobs open.
BERLINER: Turns out there was a place for Harris at Cooper Standard. The company makes sealing systems that keep wind and noise out of cars and trucks. Harris is an apprentice there, using his Air Force background as an electrician to learn a new occupation.
BERLINER: Mechatronics, it's a pretty new kind of job in manufacturing. Harris's boss, Warren Snead, explains.
WARREN SNEAD: They know a little bit about programming. They can work with automation. They know the basics of wiring, hydraulics, pneumatics - so really a superman or superwoman who can do everything.
BERLINER: Someone able to fix just about anything at a plant, the kind of job that can't be sent to a faraway country. Today Harris is installing sensors for an alarm system. Four nights a week, he's in a welding class. And he's feeling pretty good about the direction life has taken since leaving the Air Force.
HARRIS: You know, you only have a short amount of time on this planet. You better make the best of it. And that's what I'm going to do. So, yes, I do feel confident that I'm going to make the best that I can for my family.
BERLINER: It wasn't so long ago that someone like John Harris probably wouldn't have had an opportunity like this in South Carolina. Back in 2007 the state had a problem - a shortage of skilled workers and no good way to train young people for the workforce.
BRAD NEESE: We were really squarely well positioned at the bottom.
BERLINER: So the state started a program called Apprenticeship Carolina. Brad Neese is the director. He says from the beginning, they took it beyond the building trades - that's the traditional route for apprentices - to fields like nursing, pharmacy and IT. As the number of apprenticeship programs has fallen nationwide, it's taken off in South Carolina.
NEESE: When we started this back in 2007, we only had 90 companies that had apprenticeship programs. So we've hit, you know, 670, which by the way we only had 777 apprentices in 2007. And we've now serviced nearly 11,000 apprentices. So it's been a phenomenal growth.
BERLINER: So what's the secret sauce? A state tax credit for companies doesn't hurt. But it's pretty modest - $1,000 a year per apprentice for four years. A big factor is Germany. Companies like BMW and Bosch have plants in the state and brought with them the German system of apprenticeships.
NEESE: I think that the German influence has been great, but we also have seen that it's just a process that makes sense.
BERLINER: It makes sense for a company called United Tool and Mold because of demographics. I'm walking the factory floor with Jeromy Arnett. He's a manager here. The company repairs and re-engineers molds - molds that stamp out plastic parts for cars, trucks and refrigerators.
Tell me why your company has an apprenticeship program.
JEROMY ARNETT: Because every day your workforce gets older. We've been walking around here for 20 minutes, and our workforce here aged 20 minutes. We can't go back and get the time from the employees that are growing older.
BERLINER: So the company followed the German system of starting apprentices off early - here in South Carolina, after their junior year in high school, combining class work with on-the-job training.
ARNETT: We didn't go over and take verbatim what their model is, but a lot of how we set up our apprenticeship is based on that German model.
BERLINER: Brandon Richards is a youth apprentice at the company who just started at the local technical college. In class, he studies computer-aided design. Today at work, he's polishing a part so it fits precisely in a mold.
BRANDON RICHARDS: I get paid for my hours at work when I'm here. And I get paid while I'm in class. So I stay on the clock even at school.
BERLINER: Graduates of the company's apprenticeship program make around $16 dollars an hour and can earn up to 24 as they get more experienced. Arnett says in this area, that's enough to live pretty well.
ARNETT: These folks in here are making enough to where they can buy a house for their family. They put food on the table. They take that family vacation. They get the car that they want, and they take care of their kids. To me, that's middle class.
BERLINER: An apprenticeship isn't a cure-all. Companies can make the wrong hires, squander their investment. Apprentices can wind up in a field they don't like and find it hard to switch. But everyone I spoke with, regardless of ideology or geography, from employers in red state South Carolina, to economists, to a Cabinet member in the Obama administration, they all say the same thing. The apprenticeship system is an economic plus. Here is Labor Secretary Thomas Perez.
THOMAS PEREZ: Apprenticeships are a win-win. Apprenticeships are opportunities for young people to punch their ticket to the middle class and for employers to get that critical pipeline of skilled labor.
BERLINER: Given all that, you'd think they would be commonplace - far from it. In 2003, there were about 489,000 registered apprentices in the U.S.. That's according to the Labor Department - last year only around 288,000. Chalk some of that up to the recession and companies investing less in training. But people involved in apprenticeships see something else going on - the belief that somehow it's a failure when a young person doesn't go from high school to a four-year college.
ARNETT: It is a stigma that we're trying to get over, especially in our schools.
BERLINER: Jeromy Arnett at United Tool and Mold.
ARNETT: Just because they don't have a sheet of paper hanging on the wall said they went to school for four years doesn't mean that they're any less important to our country and the economy of our country than anyone else.
BERLINER: Labor Secretary Perez says apprenticeship can be a sleeping giant for the U.S. economy, but some of the toughest converts are parents.
PEREZ: When you talk to people in the manufacturing context and you say, hey, you know, your son or daughter should be an apprentice manufacturer, too many parents look at me and say, Tom, my kid's going to college.
BERLINER: Perez says apprentices can always get four-year degrees while they work, and employers will often foot the bill. Uri Berliner, NPR News.
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