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Addressing the Skill Gap: The ICATT Apprenticeship Program

An SRG Leadership Interview with:

Mario Kratsch

American manufacturing is vying for a comeback and with the boomer work force retiring, there’s ample opportunity for great careers in the sector. But an entire generation of Americans has been taught that a bachelor’s degree is a necessity and that manufacturing jobs are undesirable—poor pay and bad conditions.

Many gen-z and millennials are struggling with debt and have difficulty establishing a career path; meanwhile, many good paying jobs in the manufacturing sector remain open without qualified candidates.

In 2012, German manufacturing companies in the Chicago area were beginning to realize that while the economy was recovering, their talent pipeline was drying up. This was a striking realization because this type of problem rarely occurs in Germany—a fact widely attributed to Germany’s robust apprenticeship system.

These Chicago based German companies were interested in developing the same system locally in order to attain the same ‘soft benefits’ that are available in Germany. They wanted to get young people involved in the business with the goal of showing them there is a possibility not just to earn money, but to establish a career in their company and industry.

This led to an inquiry at the German American Chamber of Commerce of the Midwest, Inc. (GACC Midwest) and, soon after, Mario Kratsch was boarding a plane to Chicago. Today, Mario and a team of ten run the Industry Consortium for Advanced Technical Training (ICATT)—the American apprenticeship model benchmarked against the time-tested German System.

ICATT provides a long-term solution to the skills-gap problem by cultivating a system that trains and supports skilled workforce. Apprentices commit to work-study programs, come out of the apprenticeship with an associate degree, a well-paying job and, here’s the kicker: no debt.

We recently sat down with Mario to learn how ICATT was adapted to meet the needs of American companies and apprentices.

What is the origin of the German Model?

The German model finds its basic origins in the pre-industrial era when skills needed to work in the trades were prized. Guilds formed and only approved apprentices were taught the craft – and only those with the skills were allowed to work in these trades. But by that time, the system was looking way different – for instance: apprentices had to cover the entire cost of such training.

When you fast forward to post-war Germany, when the country was in an era of reform, the government passed the current Vocational Training Act which created the Apprenticeship system under the Ministry of Economy with the goal of promoting and ensuring a stable economy. Additional partners are included, but, generally speaking, the apprenticeship system in Germany is much more seen as a matter of a healthy economy first - hence the close connection to the Ministry of Economic Affairs.

Today, within Germany’s apprenticeship system, the entire workforce breaks down into roughly 350 industry standardized occupational profiles. These profiles (e.g. job specs) describe the skills, experience, education and certifications necessary for any vocation. Industry and education closely cooperate in the process of defining these minimum standards. Companies train to these minimum standards and add specifics to fit their needs.

The good thing for the company is: they develop the workforce with the skills they need.

The good thing for the apprentices is: they end up with a transferable credential which is valid throughout the industry – rather than just a company internal qualification.

When German kids are in high school, they are encouraged to take on internships to test out different industries and to help them form thoughts about their ideal career path. From there, many choose the apprentice route after high school to gain valuable work experience which can be applied to a career path or give them a ‘leg up’ in college level education.

Tell us about the ICATT Model.

The initial challenge of launching the model was adapting the German system to American norms. It’s an industry backed system in Germany and everybody values it. Here in the U.S., apprenticeships as a career pathway are commonly unknown, or unappealing.

ICATT is changing that narrative by creating a pipeline that begins with outreach to high schools with the goal of advocating for careers in manufacturing to teach