Virginia Rounds wants to save America’s manufacturing industry with apprenticeships


By Amy Sokolow
Medill Reports

Last month, 12,000 Americans who work in manufacturing lost their jobs. But Virginia Rounds, 44, has a plan to get them back to work: apprenticeships. Popular in Europe, these salaried training programs teach people on-the-job skills such as metalworking and also give them stipends for community college classes. Rounds, director of apprenticeships for the German American Chamber of Commerce in its Chicago office, explains how participating companies, which make everything from auto parts to pickles, are using this centuries-old German model to create a steady pipeline of well-qualified workers in the U.S.

How was the program conceived?

Germany has a very well-known and well-established apprenticeship program that they call the “German Dual Education System,” and German companies credit that program for a lot of their international success. A lot of innovations come out of the technician level, as opposed to having to be an engineer with a four-year degree. And they credit it with a lot of the employee retention and loyalty they have. German companies, when they go abroad, sometimes miss that, and so they reach out and say, “How can we replicate or adapt the German model to these markets we’re in?” In 2014 [the German American Chamber of Commerce] got a little bit of grant money and founded the Industry Consortium for Advanced Technical Training in 2015.

Were manufacturers telling you that they just didn’t have the talent in the U.S. without this kind of a program?

The question is not, “Do you have a problem finding skilled talent?” It’s “How big is your problem finding skilled talent?” The philosophy for the program is to, on the one side, help companies do effective training so they can build their own pipeline of talent, and on the other side, to attract more young people to manufacturing careers. Attracting them with a debt-free training program that can also offer upward mobility is very important.

What types of students do you typically attract?

Apprentices earn apprentice wages, so it tends to skew on the younger side. I would say anywhere from 18 to 27 would be the typical age of the apprentices. Some of them come out of high school and go right into apprenticeship, and some of them are career-changers. Manufacturing as a whole skews pretty male, and so do our apprentices. We’re always encouraging young women to join the program, and we find that women are really successful when they join. One of our apprentice graduates told us that her people skills were especially important when she was doing the maintenance of these high-tech factories, because if something went wrong, she needed to go to the person operating the machine and get them to tell her if they made a mistake.

How can the debt-free model help people enter into more high-paying careers?

It has made an incredible difference for the apprentices. I have somebody who actually bought a condo already. Most of them haven’t made that big purchase yet, but they all talk about how they can live a more carefree lifestyle because they don’t have that burden of having to pay the debt back.

How do you think all these apprenticeship programs can impact the economy in the Midwest?

It’s going to be essential for the Midwest manufacturing industry to create some way to build their own talent. Manufacturers have to turn down work because they don’t have the people to do it, and there’s only so much that automation can do. Who’s going to fix those robots, right? For the manufacturing industry to survive in the United States, we need a skilled workforce. And the people just aren’t coming from nowhere. You have to build them.

What is something you wish Americans knew about apprenticeship programs?

A four-year degree is not the only career path with stability and upward mobility. For a generation, it’s been “college is the only way to get ahead.” Many jobs require a four-year college degree on their job description, even if they don’t really need it for the job. Apprenticeships are an underappreciated career path, so my wish would be that more people recognize the advantages of that, and in general, how manufacturing can be a great career.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Photo at top: Virginia Rounds sits in her downtown Chicago office. Rounds directs one of the largest apprenticeship programs in the country. (Amy Sokolow/MEDILL)