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Austrian firms bring their apprenticeship model to China

Rebecca Kanthor | PLASTICS NEWS CHINA

  Engel apprentice and instructor in the workshop.

Shanghai -- Walk out on the floor at the Shanghai factory of Austrian machinery maker Engel Holding GmbH and toward the back of the plant, you'll find a group of industrious young adults, all under 20 years old, learning the ropes.
Sporting safety goggles and bright orange apprentice uniforms, the students carefully study the ins and outs of their milling machines under the tutelage of their trainers.
They're part of an unusual program in the plastics industry to bring intensive European-style apprentice training to China. The program, Austrian Apprenticeship Shanghai, is in its fourth year and this year graduated its first class.
It's a partnership of Engel and two other European companies, Austrian plastic packaging firm Alpla-Werke Alwin Lehner GmbH & Co KG and German connector solutions company Odu GmbH & Co. KG, along with the Shanghai Information Technology College, the Shanghai Bureau of Education and several Austrian business and government agencies.
The program, which is modeled on the traditional Austrian system, is almost 180 degrees different from most apprenticeship programs in China, the companies say.
"In China, most students spend about 80 percent of their time in class at vocational schools and 20 percent in on-the-job training," said Juan Ignacio Nitzl, head of apprenticeship program at Alpla.
In contrast, he said, students at AAS spend 80 percent of their time learning on the job and 20 percent in class at SITC.
Students in the program also must learn English, a valuable skill for them that is not a part of a typical local job training program.
The companies banded together in China to create a new curriculum and develop training modules.
Since this style of apprenticeship is less common in China, they said working together gave them more clout with the Shanghai Education Bureau and SITC, whose support has been critical.
"This is not something that you can easily do," Nitzl said. "You need the support of officials."
The companies say the investment in the expensive four-year training program is made with the same basic philosophy as they make investments in machine tools and expensive production equipment.
"We are not in China on the search for cheap labor; we are here because China is, for us, a very big market, an important market, a market where we will further develop and advance and increase our market share," said Engel General Manager Peter Garimort. "This is only possible if you have proper human resource, if you have skilled labor."
The companies see apprenticeships as a way to maintain their European level of quality.
Both Nitzl and Garimort said they graduated from similar apprenticeship programs in Austria and said what they're doing helps address a problem common to many manufacturing companies in China: "There's a real shortage of highly skilled engineers," Nitzl said.
Currently, the three companies are training more than 60 apprentices in CNC, plastics and mechatronics, and each company has its own training workshop.
Li Taoxian, the head of Engel's apprenticeship project and himself a former machine operator, said the quality of the apprentices' work is quite high.
"The students are slower [than our full-time workers], but they are very detail-oriented," he said, adding that less than 5 percent of the parts they make fail to meet the factory standard.
"As much of the parts we can use, we do," Li said.
Nitzl said: "They have to learn it's not for play. If you have to scrap this part for a product, it could cost 5,000 yuan [$744]. We want the students to have a feeling of accomplishment and also feel some pressure to work hard and be careful."
The companies hope that creating a good situation from the beginning will turn the apprentices into long-term employees for the company.
"I believe it can really, how to say, maybe light a spark," said Garimort. "Light the fire to like what you're doing. If an employee starts to look for another job, then it's already too late, because for sure, he will find something.
"We want them to get a sense of belonging to something," he said.
The companies say they're slowly building the programs. Engel and Alpla each take on 10 to 12 new apprentices a year.
"At this moment, we are putting quality before quantity," 

said Garimont. "We made no compromise in terms of what we expect from the graduates and what level we want to keep."
"But it's very feasible that our numbers every year would still grow, but we would also have to increase the trainers, we have to increase our facilities, and so on," he said.
They have discussed adding companies to their alliance but are approaching this cautiously as well since the program requires the companies to all work closely together and share many operational details.
"We discuss everything the same, even HR is discussed, everything, the same," said Nitzl. "There is, I would say, no secrets in between the companies.
"Our demands to enter this kind of project are quite high," he adds. "For us, the quality is the most important thing. Not only the quality of what we get, also the quality of the projects themselves. Not all the companies are willing to do something like this in China."
Garimont said it's a long-term investment.
"We have huge investments, and we will be here the next, I don't know, 50 years," he said. "I will be retired by then, but the program will live on."

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