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As the economy picks up a little speed and the demand for his product increases, Craig Freedman said he can't find qualified candidates who are fluent in metallurgy, can operate his computer-run machines and read blueprints.

"The skill shortage is getting more and more acute every day," said the president of Freedman Seating Co., a manufacturer of vehicle seats who is partnering with a local nonprofit to develop an in-house apprenticeship program to train workers.

The manufacturing skills gap is serious in Chicago, Deputy Mayor Steven Koch said Thursday at a round-table discussion highlighting the importance of manufacturing apprenticeships. More than 14,000 help-wanted signs dot Chicago, posted by companies that can't find the right applicants.

Part of the reason, Koch said, is that many companies eliminated their apprenticeship programs during the recession, and now they need help restoring such programs.

On hand at the round table was U.S. Labor Secretary Thomas Perez, who encouraged manufacturers to apply for $100 million in apprenticeship funding that will be available this fall through the American Apprenticeship Grant.

Perez said President Barack Obama's goal is to double the number of registered apprenticeships from the current 375,000. He said the U.S. is behind countries such as Germany, which has 1.8 million registered apprenticeships.

Perez described manufacturing apprenticeships as part of the "higher-ed superhighway" because they give workers the skills they need to get good-paying jobs. Parents, he said, need to stop thinking that college is the only route to a job that pays middle-income wages.

Guy Loudon, executive director of the Jane Addams Resource Corp., said in a separate interview that apprenticeship programs also help structure career paths. Companies, Loudon said, don't want to guess whether workers are ready to move up and can use apprenticeships to tie pay to employees' performance and knowledge, instead of seniority.

Meanwhile, some companies are left on the sidelines unsuccessfully searching for ideal job candidates.

Pam McDonough, president of the Alliance for Illinois Manufacturing, said many of the group's members are hesitant to hire workers without experience. As a result, they are likely to have positions open for years.

McDonough said she tells them about a program she manages called On the Job Training, which reimburses employers for up to 50 percent of wages for up to six months. The alliance acts as a matchmaker, connecting employers with job applicants.

The alliance has received nearly $2 million since 2011 for the program, which is financed with federal dollars. It keeps about $60,000 per year to manage it.

Some companies are even looking to Europe for help with training.

Anna-Katharina Wittenstein, chairwoman of Germany-based Wittenstein, whose products include precision gears for rockets, race cars and deep-sea diving equipment, said it would be too expensive for the company to have its own apprenticeship program in the U.S.

Wittenstein employs about 80 people at its North American headquarters in Bartlett. There, she said, the company needs machinists who can run, repair and maintain the equipment.

So Wittenstein is part of a group of companies working with the German American Chambers of Commerce to create a German-style training program in the Midwest. Germany, she said, has programs in which workers spend time at a company and school.

Twitter @WriterAlejandra



The following blog was written by Stacey Jarrett Wagner, a Workforce Systems Development Manager with the National Institute of Standards and Technology’s (NIST) Hollings Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MEP), and originally posted to the NIST MEP Manufacturing Innovation Blog

When I was growing up, I was fascinated by apprenticeships – really!  I was an avid reader of history, ancient and otherwise, and apprenticeships always meant adventure.  One could apprentice with Greek philosophers, British knights, Teutonic alchemists, and farmers, tradespeople and barbers (who were also doctors).  You could apprentice in a household or a business.  And once your apprenticeship was complete, you commanded respect as a trained and educated person with skills to play a useful role in society.

Apprenticeships have always been a stepping stone for both a good job and a great story.  Those tantalizing tales I read as a kid centered, mostly, on a young person’s indenture to some mysterious craftsperson and it always lead to mischief: wild chases, first-time love affairs, and messy screw-ups.  But they also led to the apprentice learning about life, love and labor – specifically the skills to be someone you weren’t before, but better.

The master-storyteller, Walt Disney, even got into the act when he produced the iconic movie, “Fantasia,” with a scene called The Sorcerers’ Apprentice, which to this day still spooks me.  There are also plenty of modern-day books about apprentices: “The Apprentice” (Lewis Libby), “The Apprentice” (Tess Gerritsen), “The Apprentice Series” (James Bryan Smith) and “Rangers Apprentice” (John Flanagan), to name just a few, and a TV show by that name as well (I know I don’t need to tell you who stars in that!). In the modern vernacular, the term sorcerers’ apprentice, was immortalized by “The Sorcerers’ Apprentice,” a poem by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe written in 1797.

But in the last few decades, the term “apprentice” lost much of its luster, as the term became (wrongly) associated with uninteresting vocational work.  Additionally, some of the most successful apprenticeships were offered by unions, but with the decline of private-sector unions, there have been fewer opportunities for students to participate in apprenticeship pathways to a middle-class life.

Luckily, as in any good story, what goes around, comes around, and apprenticeships are once again becoming popular as a way to receive a work-based education. Recently the Obama Administration announced new investments in American Apprenticeship Grants, This competition, to be launched in fall 2014, will focus on partnerships to: 1) create apprenticeship models in new, high-growth fields, 2) align apprenticeships to career learning and advancement, and 3) scale existing successful apprenticeship models. The U.S. Department of Labor is hosting six industry roundtables in June 2014 for a “listening” tour.  Included in the dates is a roundtable on June 19th in Chicago on manufacturing.

The apprentice grant program will make $100 million available to partnerships of employers and employer organizations, community colleges, WIBs, non-profits, and labor and training organizations.  MEP centers – with their direct conduit to small manufacturers – are particularly encouraged to participate in this program. While the grants won’t be released until the fall, the summer would be a good time to look at the Apprenticeship Office website for more information and imagine your participation in this important initiative.  Initiatives such as these will, after time, eliminate the hole in the manufacturing talent pipeline by providing manufacturing-based training and certification.  And you can be part of that sea-change.  Believe me, it’s not sorcery that makes change happen.  It’s you.