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Plastics apprenticeships offer fresh path to China's students

Rebecca Kanthor | PLASTICS NEWS CHINA

  Engel apprentice Barry Sun (far left, against the wall) works in the classroom with other students.

For the young apprentices in an Austrian-led plastics training program in Shanghai, starting work at age 15 in a foreign-owned company can be a chance to follow a different path than their peers.
Rather than slogging through school and cramming for China's intensely competitive college entrance exam, the gao kao, they get a more hands-on education.
Barry Sun, a 17-year-old who has been an apprentice at Engel Holdings GmbH for two years, said his school steered him to the training program, called Austrian Apprenticeship Shanghai.
"I like DIY and I like machines, so my teacher suggested I check this out," he said. "I could come to Shanghai and it could be different from what the other kids are doing. We enter the workforce earlier and we enter the society earlier."
Plus, Sun said he likes the spending money that comes from the stipend all apprentices get.
"I buy my own clothes," Sun said proudly, showing off his taste in fashion in his hop-hop inspired after-work attire.
The students -- there are 60 of them training with injection machine maker Engel, Austrian plastic packaging firm Alpla Werke Alwin Lehner GmbH & Co KG and German connector solutions company Odu -- are in a program that mixes on-the-job training and classwork modeled on Austria's youth apprenticeship system.
For example, all have their room and board at the Shanghai Information Technology College paid for by their employers. Some of them come from other cities in China.
It's a significant investment for the companies. Engel, for example, said it spends 4.2 million Chinese yuan ($620,000) on equipment, five full-time trainers in Shanghai, classroom space and continuous support from professional trainers in Austria.
The company's recent expansion in Shanghai includes an area that will partly house the apprentice program's workshop.
"We are also showing them a career path, because going through the apprenticeship program as a CNC technician certainly does not mean that that all of them will be CNC technicians until they retire," said Engel General Manager Peter Garimort. "In order to keep them we have to keep being an attractive employer.
"We want them from the very first day on to feel like they're part of Engel," he said. "We want to make them interested in what they're doing."
In June, the first batch of apprentices graduated from the four-year program, and they had the opportunity to sit for both Chinese and Austrian certification tests, with examiners flown-in from Austria to administer it.
The graduates received both the official Chinese certificate and the traditional Austrian Lehrabschlussprufung. The eight graduates from Engel and 11 from Alpla had short vacations, and then two days later, were back at work, this time as full-time employees.
Juan Ignacio Nitzl, head of Alpla's apprenticeship program, said there's often less risk for the company in hiring an apprentice, than in hiring from the outside.
"Of course, [apprentices] still need to learn," he said. "But they know the environment, they know the machines, they know the company, so this makes it, for a company, much easier.
"Our goal is actually to train our future staff," he said. "It's not a program that we train people for the labor market. We train them, and we educate them for ourselves, for our needs."
The companies actively recruit middle school students and encourage them to attend SITC and join the apprenticeship program.
Engel visits schools in Shanghai and nearby Changshu, Jiangsu Province, while Alpla recruits from as far away as the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou, where it has a factory.
The company has seven plants throughout China, and recruits students from those cities to train in Shanghai and then return and work in their hometowns.
"We go to the middle schools. We go to schools in near proximity to the company and introduce our program to attract people to apply for apprenticeships in our company," said Nitzl. "This is also something which ... is very new for China."
Cathy Chen, head of human resources for Engel in Shanghai, said that some parents are nervous about sending their kids far away at such a young age, but the promise of a steady job, opportunity for advancement and bilingual education is very attractive to them.
The students are required to learn English as part of AAS.
Nitzl said parental involvement is key to the program.
"We take the parents, since the first day, into all this project, so that they know what's going on [and] keep them up to date," he said. "When you feel like the parents are supporting this, this is for us, this is important."
Another thing parents may like: The students are not allowed to use mobile phones at work, eliminating what can be an attractive distraction for the teens.
One area that the program hopes to work on is increasing the number of female apprentices.
Currently Alpla has two female apprentices (one of whom is at the top of her class) and is bringing on one more. Engel's first two female students start in the fall.
Still, the companies said they're happy with how the apprenticeships have gone. Nitzl said it's vital to create an environment that's positive for the apprentices.
"They feel they are doing it because they like it, they like the company, they like the environment, they like the culture," he said. "So this is really important, actually."

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