It’s gotten so hard to find skilled welders, the factory managers at Dynamic Manufacturing Solutions hung a bell on the wall so they could celebrate their new hires.
“We actually found one of these guys recently,” said Jeffrey Cottrell, the firm’s vice president of operations.
The guy stopped by to drop off his résumé, and Cottrell, fetched by the office manager to meet him, asked how soon he could take the factory’s welding test. He returned that afternoon.
“He was actually welding in the auto industry and had never seen or done any of this stuff before,” Cottrell said. “He sat down and did his test, and Dennis, our top welder back there, goes: ‘Hire this guy immediately because he just gets it.’”
Among other things, DMS welds piping for the extremely precise and expensive machinery used in semiconductor and pharmaceutical manufacturing. It’s delicate welding, at times almost artistic, and the applicant immediately grasped the concepts. Better yet, Cottrell said, he seemed eager to learn what he didn’t know.
“I offered him a job right there on the spot,” he said.
“That bell on the wall they ring?” quipped Terry Terrazas, one of DMS’ manufacturing managers. “It actually broke the bell.”
No wonder they were excited, given that their lack of welders has become the single most-inhibiting factor on the company’s growth, according to CEO Robb Misso. If 20 qualified applicants walked in tomorrow, Misso said, they could put them all to work and probably take on more of the business they’ve had to turn down in recent months.
Misso and his colleagues created what they dubbed DMS University – an opportunity for welders and everyone else around the company to learn a variety of skills, from leadership to welding to English as a second language. Most employees participate in one or more parts of the program.
Rare are the companies that provide such comprehensive work-and-learn programs for employees, often for fear of losing that investment when a competitor poaches your newly trained worker.
“I’d rather train them and have them create a sense of loyalty to the organization and really believe this company gives people opportunities to truly climb the ladder,” Misso said.
Yet, in today’s job market, even entry- or junior-level job postings often require several years of experience, or at least ask applicants to display a certain level of technical skill. More companies expect incoming workers to develop those talents before applying.
Those demands have put a heightened premium on internships and apprenticeships, and officials at all levels of government are starting to put a greater emphasis behind them. President Donald Trump in June issued an order to help expand apprenticeship programs nationwide in hopes of boosting more middle-skill, middle-wage job opportunities in manufacturing and other industries.
Meanwhile, state and local government and workforce officials drafted a provision for these “earn-and-learn opportunities” into the new Austin Metro Area Master Community Workforce Plan, which they announced at DMS’ North Austin factory in May.
The plan calls for resources to “support employers in scaling up internship, summer job and apprenticeship programming.” At the launch, workforce officials noted the importance of earn-and-learn opportunities, particularly for low-income students and workers who can’t afford to take blocks of time without income.
“Occupations are being transformed, and it’s important we give students insight into what this means for them in terms of opportunities,” said Andres Alcantar, chairman of the Texas Workforce Commission.
In addition to the 7,000 apprentices it supports through its initiatives, the workforce commission joined the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board and the Texas Education Agency to develop strong links between education and industry. Together, they launched the Texas Internship Challenge, a website where both businesses and individuals can go to post or find internship opportunities.
“These applied learning opportunities help us close the gap in terms of what is being learned in the classroom and its relevance to and application in the workplace,” Alcantar said.
Yet, traffic on this and other job portals with internship postings appear to underscore two different bottlenecks in different sectors.
On one hand, many students and workers seeking high-skill, white-collar internships aren’t finding enough opportunities. On the other, many of the factories and firms offering traditionally blue-collar internships or apprenticeships can’t find enough applicants.
That’s of particular concern for workforce and higher-education officials, who stress the importance of earn-and-learn opportunities for low-income students and workers who can’t afford to take off blocks of time without income.
“The issue of unpaid internships, which has been the model that’s been dominant for a long time, is really unfair to an awful lot of poor people because poor students can’t work for free,” said Raymund Parades, the state’s Commissioner of Higher Education. “They need to be paid. They need to be compensated.”
Parades said he’d like to see a refashioning of earn-and-learn opportunities, one that streamlines work and education throughout a career. These days, he said, it’s not uncommon for young workers to go through multiple different careers, not just different employers.
But that would take a better understanding of the challenges from both educators and businesses. For example, professors understanding the financial and work requirements of students, and employers understanding the joint school-work priority of their interns.
Parades said some of that understanding was lost when the pendulum swung too far toward an emphasis on four-year degrees for everyone. Yet, even in countries with especially strong apprenticeship programs, such as Switzerland, that bias remains.
Harvard University education professor Robert Schwartz recently recalled a time when he gathered a panel of about 10 Swiss CEOs and asked whether they’d gone through the country’s vaunted apprenticeship program or a university system. The breakdown was about 50-50, he said.
Yet, even with the country’s well-regarded apprenticeship culture, he said, most Swiss parents still say they prefer an academic track for their own children. And it’s worse in the U.S., where apprenticeship programs are less common and typically regarded as something less than an academic track.
“We’re way behind the world leaders in this regard,” Schwartz said, “not even in the same ballpark.”
Yet for the first time in four decades of work, Scwhartz said, he feels the wind at his back.
“There’s enough interest among employers now and enough openness from the education system and enough interest from political leadership, as referenced by the plan you mentioned in Austin,” he said. “People are thinking anew about the relationship between the education system and workforce system and the economy we want and need.”
Among U.S. metro areas, Austin had the 11th-largest concentration internship postings, with 84 internships for every 1,000 job postings, according to data compiled for the American-Statesman by Indeed, the Austin-based global job-search site.
Austin saw higher demand for internships in technical occupations, such as marketing, social media, business development and software engineering. But across the board, employer demand for interns hasn’t increased at all in recent years, said Daniel Culbertson, an economist at the Indeed Hiring Lab.
In fact, Culbertson said, postings have dipped even as searches for internships increased.
“Judging from Indeed data, I would say that bottleneck is coming from employers,” he said.
Culbertson said Indeed’s analysis probably didn’t capture the scope of blue-collar internship opportunities, which more likely are identified as apprenticeships. But the idea of the supply-demand imbalance reversing from white- to blue-collar job internships is probably “on the right track,” he said.
“Previous research with our data shows just how much millennials tend to avoid those types of blue-collar roles,” he said. “It wouldn’t surprise me if it’s a supply issue for lower-skilled roles and a demand issue for higher.”
That’s not to say there aren’t a lot of higher-skilled internship opportunities out there. Accenture’s Texas offices bring in about 150 interns each year, said Tom Pettit, the Austin managing director. Many of the interns they see come via the traditional university route, Pettit said, but about 30 others get summer jobs through the company’s Skills to Succeed program, which is designed to pull in high school and other, often disadvantaged students.
Both Joseph Ramirez and Adriana Ortiz arrived at Accenture internships through similar programs and have worked multiple summers there – Ramirez between class work at St. Edward’s University and Ortiz while studying at the University of Texas.
“I could find a job at any major retail store or within the fast food industry,” Ramirez said, “but I wanted to learn something more, something that would launch me forward toward a future career.”
After a string of internships there, Ortiz took a full-time job at the Austin office after graduating earlier this year. She will start as a business analyst, she said, with hopes of moving up to a consulting role.
Ultimately, she hopes to integrate her work with her thesis – which looked at Mexico’s Sinaloa Cartel and its resemblance to a corporation – using the combination to create opportunities for orphans and disadvantaged children in Sinaloa.
“My dream is, through Accenture … to go back to Mexico and establish an orphanage system to help those children come into the formal sector and work with corporations,” Ortiz said. “I want to give them an opportunity to find that.”
Editor’s note: A previous version of this story was unclear on the number of available Accenture internships. The company offers about 150 internships annually across Texas, not just in Austin.