Often theoretical training isn’t enough to grasp what’s really going on when, for example, a beefy industrial motor couples into a gearbox that weighs more than your car. The real insights come from hands-on work. Problem is, opportunities to learn this way have been hard to come by.

But learning opportunities are on the rise thanks to a resurgence in vocational education. One perspective comes from Randy Pearson who heads up training for Siemens Machine Tool. About five years ago an instructor at a Wisconsin vocational school asked Pearson for help putting on a CNC programming course. The relationship mushroomed into involvement with a half-dozen votech programs and inquiries from several more.

“In the past instructors have had trouble finding students to fill these classes,” Pearson says. “Today they have more pupils than they know what to do with. So classes run six days a week. Vo-ed was traditionally populated with troublemakers, and there is still some of that. But now you see guys with tattoos next to kids who look like they could be in business school.”

And what does Siemens get out of this deal? “Probably some brand recognition but not a lot of direct sales,” shrugs Pearson. “We also have the satisfaction of giving kids skills that let them fill in for old guys who are not being replaced. In most shops, the median age is about 45 for CNC operators and programmers. You don’t see 20-year-olds running machines.”

Vo-ed training is great for technicians. B.S.-level engineering students may have a more difficult time honing practical skills simply because apprenticeships for aspiring engineers are rare.

On that score, we could use more people like Willie Goellner. Goellner emigrated from Germany in the 1950s and founded Advanced Machine & Engineering Co. For years, Goellner has hosted an exchange program that brings Austrian engineering students into AM&E’s plant for a few months. “We only get the smartest ones,” he says. “The dean over there uses our program as an incentive for good students.”

Goellner has programs in place for American students as well, but “The Austrians have a practical background that parallels their theoretical training. There is little you have to explain to them,” he says. “The guys from the States have the theoretical stuff but they are lacking on the practical end so they need help in applications.”

Goellner doesn’t just train engineers. He also employs high schoolers to do what he calls “simple stuff — mostly detailing and change notices.” And he thinks companies that don’t do likewise are shortsighted.

“I am from the old country where every company trains people,” he says. “There we didn’t worry about employees leaving to go to competitors. We actually encouraged it for the sake of broader experience. In this country, there are only a few companies that train. The rest just steal employees from everywhere else.”

That’s 180° away from the philosophy at AM&E where Goellner says he budgets some of his own time to work directly with his Austrian and American protégé.

— Leland Teschler, Editor