Reflections on the Unintended – and Awesome – Corporate Consequences of Apprenticeship in America

This post is part of an archived series of blogs called The LeVine Line, written by former Ambassador Suzan G. LeVine during her time at U.S. Embassy Bern.

17 July 2016

<Mike Gunner is the General Manager for Mikron Automation in Colorado. With the catalytic energy provided by the Mikron CEO in Switzerland, Mike and team have embraced and run with a new apprenticeship program styled on the Swiss model of apprenticeship. They are critical partners of Embassy Bern as we seek more companies to help get even more momentum going around apprenticeship in the US – what I believe is critical to our long term economic future. While they’re still in the initial phases of rollout, it’s useful for everyone to see what the delightful surprises have been for them thus far in getting this off the ground! Many thanks, Mike, for your inspiring impressions! I hope that every company sees this benefit and gets on board!>

Mikron Automation produces state-of-the-art, high speed assembly systems for some of the world’s most innovative companies.  Nearly every project we execute is a one-of-a-kind machine.  The nature of our work makes our organization very dependent on our highly skilled and motivated workforce.

As we planned for the future, we recognized a critical gap between our increasing business needs and our aging workforce.  We made the decision to be proactive by creating an apprenticeship program for our most critical, hard to fill roles.  We are in the first year of our “great experiment” and have experienced some unintended consequences.

Our apprenticeship starts with a summer internship for selected high school students who have just finished their junior years.  We had tremendous support from the Cherry Creek School District to find exceptional student talent. You could argue that the school district did too well.  Instead of taking on the targeted five summer interns, we selected ten. 

Our interns are working 17 days over five weeks this summer, actually building machines alongside their mentors. To give each intern maximum exposure to our organization and our work, the mentors are rotated every 1 ½ days.  As I write this, we are entering the fifth and final week of the program, and perhaps the hardest part of the program, so far.  From our ten excellent interns, we must select just 3 to progress into the apprenticeship program. 

The apprenticeship begins during the student’s senior year in high school, progresses through their associate’s degree, and completes about 18 months after graduation. 

The Law of Unintended Consequences says that actions often yield unanticipated results.  Our organization has certainly seen evidence of this.  As our apprenticeship program prepares us for the future, it is also creating a better company culture today.  The impact was immediately noticeable when the interns started.

Participation in the mentorship group by our employees is voluntary.  Would-be mentors can opt out of the program because it may create additional work, and potentially additional stress, in their work lives. People who were not selected as mentors are asking why they were not chosen as mentors, and if they will have an opportunity to mentor next year.  The question, “Will we do this next year?” is not even asked.

We also saw an instant increase in cooperation amongst all employees, in and outside of the program.  Employee interactions are more positive and the level of professional respect has noticeably improved. The cultural change was immediate and has lasted throughout the summer internship.

Another consequence of the program is that our competitors and customers are reaching out to understand our model in order to implement similar programs of their own.  We recognize that our program cannot be successful in isolation. To attain the same recognition and value as the European apprenticeship models, it needs to be part of the larger movement inside the US.  The ties we are now creating with competitors and customers are deeper than the normal, daily business interactions.  We are building a mutual understanding that will help ensure that our industry thrives in the US.

Speaking of ties, our links to the community have gotten stronger, as well. Local school districts, Community Colleges, non-profit organizations, Local, State and Federal government, as well as other Denver based European/US companies have approached us to learn about and be involved in the program.  Our united goal of creating viable apprenticeship programs fosters positive communication and collaboration on many levels.

We started this “great experiment” to meet a business need regarding talent sourcing.  The unintended consequences of our decision, building a more cohesive workforce and stronger ties with external groups, have made the experiment more impactful than our initial goals. 

Mike – thank you to you AND Mikron Automation for your candor and energy to change how we educate and engage our young people!