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W&H Academy - The Key to Sustained Excellence?

Andrew Wheeler, President of W&H North America, talks about apprenticeships

W&H Academy - The Key to Sustained Excellence?

By Andrew Wheeler, President of W&H North America

The U.S. unemployment rate is below 4%. Therefore, is it any wonder that finding the right people is THE biggest challenge confronting most industries today?

I moved to Germany (still West Germany) in 1981 as an 18- year-old high school graduate. Speaking no German, I had the opportunity during my „gap year“ to live in a town called Bielefeld (about an hour east of Lengerich) in the State of NorthRhine Westfalia and work in a German steel factory. I had no idea at the time what I would be doing. Eventually, I wound up in the “Finishing” section of the factory, where the final welding and painting of the steel girders was completed before shipment.

That was my first experience with the amazing apprenticeship program in Germany. Obviously, throughout the centuries, all countries have had some form of apprentice or trainee system in place, in order to feed EVERY industry, crafts, mechanical trades, manufacturing, arts, music ... didn’t matter. The goal was always to have the pupil learn at the feet of the master. This was not just done to prepare the student, but also to establish perpetual competence in the field.

In Germany, the Vocational Training Act of 1969 formally aligned the federal and state governments with individual companies for the first time. However, robust apprenticeship programs were commonplace throughout Europe dating back to the Middle Ages. In fact, the world’s oldest Brewery, Bavaria’s Weihenstephan, has been running continuously since 1040 AD and was the first to utilize Brewer’s Apprentices.

So, is the apprenticeship system the reason why Germany‘s excellence in machinery building is unmatched in the world today?? Very possibly. Referred to as the “Dual System”, apprentices spend 50-70% of their time in companies learning a trade and the rest of their time receiving formal education in a vocational school. Traditionally, these programs last 3 years, after which the company has the opportunity to hire the graduate, who has by then, been formally trained in the manner that the company would like.

Nowadays, approximately 20% (used to be much more) of ALL companies in Germany, have an apprenticeship program, with over 500,000 new apprentice “graduations” each year in over 350 different trades (Ausbildungsberufe).

Still living at home with support from their families, these young “kids” (some as young as 15 or 16) attend vocational school 1-2 days/week, which makes up most of their theoretical training. The rest of the time is spent in the company, learning the practical aspects of the job.

Depending on the year of training, the “Azubi‘s” (as they are called) earn only between $940 and $1,150/mo (gross), so obviously the goal is long-term stability. They are not simply looking for a “job”, they want to be trained for a career. Even though the cost of supporting such a system is high, the benefit to W&H and other manufacturing companies is also long-term ... we are able to train young people the way they should be trained in order to maintain the excellence in manufacturing that we are known for.

When I started in Extrusion Sales at W&H 31 years ago, I made it a point, during visits to Lengerich, to show our customers (many of you may remember) every part of W&H‘s extensive manufacturing facilities. My favorite area, and one that was foreign to most of our American visitors, was the Ausbildungsbereich (the Apprentice training area).

At W&H, we are extremely proud of our renowned “Ausbildungsprogramm”. Although we have had the program for decades, we formally began the W&H ACADEMY in 2003. Since that time, we have had over 400 graduates. Because of the cost of these programs, however, many companies will subsidize other company’s programs, rather than run their own. At W&H, we “support” 13 other companies.

In 2019, we had the following makeup in our Academy: 24 Apprentices in Electronics, 41 Apprentices in Metal Technology, 4 Apprentices in Sales/Administration and 24 dual Apprentices in the fields of Electrical Engineering, Mechanical Engineering, Industrial Engineering and Business Logistics/Administration.

Managing Director of the W&H Academy, Olaf Heymann-Riedel is a Graduate of the W&H program, as well as our valued colleagues that you may know, Juergen Peters, Andreas Vogelsang, Jan Bergmann and Hendrik Steen, who runs our Extrusion Retrofit Business Unit, among others.

Each year we take on approximately 25 new apprentices. Since 2010, 80% of the apprentices have been offered jobs at the end of their program. However, it is not only the technical training that is crucial to the success of such a program, but also the promotion of social competence, corporate culture and teamwork. Emphasis is placed on building confidence and competence, as these are the team members and leaders of tomorrow.