Companies often worry that they won’t have enough workers to fill available jobs, especially in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields. That worry is especially prevalent for technical jobs that do not require a PhD. To get qualified workers, companies have largely taken two tacks. Many are using apprenticeships to train workers internally to fill the jobs they need. That model, which has a long history in Germany, is spreading across Europe, to the UK, and to the US. A second strategy, popular in the US, is partnering with local community colleges to train workers for specific industries through both associate’s degree and certificate programs.
Apprenticeships: Europe’s talent pipeline to industry
A training model firmly established in Germany, apprenticeships are becoming increasingly popular as a means to train the next generation of chemists in other parts of Europe and the US
At the BASF headquarters in Ludwigshafen, Germany, about 2,300 apprentices are taking their first steps into a chemistry career. If previous years are a guide, 90% of them will become permanent employees with the company after completing their apprenticeships.
BASF has been training apprentices for more than 100 years. The chemical giant says it relies on in-company training to attract new talent and keep its lab benches filled. “[The] training is a key success factor and at the heart of creating motivated, qualified, and committed employees,” says Philipp Roßkopf, a BASF spokesperson. “Apprenticeship programs build a talent pipeline for roles that are vital to the success and sustainability of our industry.”
Apprenticeship programs like BASF’s are among the most common forms of training young talent in Germany, where about 50% of all high school graduates undergo vocational training provided by companies. Apprenticeships in Germany are known under the umbrella term dual vocational training, and they combine practical, on-the-job training with more traditional education at a school.
Germany’s chemical industry swears by apprenticeships for feeding its pipeline of talent. For aspiring chemists, they provide a route to a science career that allows them to earn money while completing their training. Now the model is expanding across mainland Europe, to the UK, and even to the US, as chemical companies are embracing apprentices as a way to get the skills they need and attract aspiring chemists from different backgrounds and with a diverse range of talents.
“These are great schemes for young students who want work experience and to continue learning but without the debt at the end,” says Michelle Lippiatt, human resources manager at Afton Chemical UK. “And they are a great way for businesses to get new, young talent through the door.”
In Ludwigshafen, apprentices are trained in BASF’s dedicated training campus—which has training production plants, laboratories, and workshops—by the company’s own instructors, as well as in the production facilities by BASF employees. In parallel, they go to a vocational school for classes. BASF is training apprentices in 30 professions. “Currently, we are looking for chemical technicians as well as specialists in technical professions—in particular, electronics technicians for automation technology or operating engineering, mechatronics technicians, and plant or industrial mechanics,” Roßkopf says.
A program that trains thousands of young people is something only large companies can afford, says Hans Jürgen Metternich, head of product line apprenticeship and idea management at the German specialty chemical company Evonik Industries. The company trains about 1,000 apprentices at any one time to work at its facilities. And that number is growing. “This year Evonik added 110 positions for apprentices in the chemical sciences and maintenance,” Metternich says.
But Evonik also recognizes that some companies cannot afford similar infrastructure. “Small companies can struggle to do the training themselves. The curricula are very demanding,” Metternich says. For more than 20 years, Evonik has been offering smaller companies the opportunity to train apprentices at Evonik’s training centers. The apprentices are employed by the other companies but are trained by Evonik’s dedicated training staff and sometimes work at the chemical giant’s labs over the 3-to-4-year apprenticeship program.
Metternich says the popularity of Evonik’s training centers—the company is currently training about 500 apprentices for other companies—mirrors the demand for apprentices across Germany’s chemical industry. For Evonik, training the future staff of its competitors means it is less likely to compete for more experienced staff later on, he says. Some 9,000 new apprentices are trained each year in the German chemical industry overall, Metternich says, and that number is likely to rise.
While the dual vocational system began in Germany, it is beginning to find a footing elsewhere in Europe. Austria and Switzerland already have similar systems. This year Lonza accepted 84 apprentices at its site in Visp, Switzerland. This is the most new trainees it has taken on to date, according to site manager Renzo Cicillini. “We continue to see increasing demand for apprenticeships from young people,” he says. There are now more than 230 apprentices being trained at the Visp site.
Training industry’s next generation
Apprenticeships are common in Germany and have spread across Europe and to the UK and US. Here is a sampling of apprenticeship numbers from companies quoted in this story.
|COMPANY||COUNTRY||NEW APPRENTICES IN 2022||APPRENTICES CURRENTLY IN TRAINING||EXPECTED RATE OF CONVERSION TO EMPLOYEES|
|Afton Chemical UK||England||4||Not Available||75%|
|Almac Group||Northern Ireland||18||20||75%|
|Lonza (Visp site)||Switzerland||84||232||Not Disclosed|
a Including 500 from other companies.
And German companies are spreading their apprenticeship programs to sites abroad. Evonik is beginning to integrate an apprenticeship program into its site in Antwerp, Belgium. And BASF has taken its apprenticeship program to the US. The company is currently training 100 apprentices at 20 manufacturing sites spread across the country, and BASF says it plans to expand the program further.
“In the US, apprenticeship programs like BASF’s are less common than in Europe,” Roßkopf says. “But the labor market in the US is tight, and the demand for skilled workers remains high.” Apprenticeships lower barriers to entry for high-demand chemistry careers and help address the skill gap in the manufacturing industry, Roßkopf says.
In the UK, apprenticeship programs have also experienced an uptick over the past decade, powered in part by the rising cost of university tuition fees, says Lippiatt, the human resources manager at Afton Chemical UK. The additives manufacturer has been running apprenticeship programs since the 1990s, and 75% of previous apprentices have secured permanent positions with the company. Some are now even in senior leadership roles and at the director level, Lippiatt says. This year, Afton is seeking four technician-scientist apprentices.
Lippiatt compares apprenticeships to a 2-to-3-year interview for both the individual and the company. “And it’s a great opportunity for them to come into an organization where they do not need previous experience—they just need a keen interest in science and a willingness to learn,” she says. Afton’s apprenticeship program helps the company get a steady flow of new talent through the door. And the company sees apprenticeships as a way to encourage young people into science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) careers, she says. “We want to help develop the next generation of scientists.”
The UK’s apprenticeship system is different from Germany’s dual vocational training. UK companies collaborate with a training provider—such as a university, vocational school, or college—to run an apprenticeship program, rather than industry itself taking the lead. Depending on the program, apprentices work toward various educational qualifications, including requirements to graduate from high school, a combined academic-and-vocational foundation degree, or a bachelor’s or master’s degree. The difference from being a full-time high school or undergraduate student? Apprentices earn while they learn.
Contract development and manufacturing organization Almac Group has been running an apprenticeship program with the Southern Regional College (SRC), Portadown Campus, since 2016. The company set up the program at its headquarters in Craigavon, Northern Ireland, to recruit and retain staff and to help young people in its communities find employment, says Frances Weldon, Almac’s STEM outreach manager. In May, Almac launched another program in conjunction with Ulster University.
Almac’s number of new apprentices grows every year. Its partnership with SRC has trained 52 apprentices since 2016, three-quarters of whom are still working for the company. “By the end of 2025, we aim to have trained over 100 apprentices in partnership with SRC and Ulster University,” Weldon says. Normally, Almac’s apprentices finish the program with a foundation degree from SRC. Weldon says 85% then progress to a bachelor’s of science degree.
For many aspiring chemists, the apprenticeship system opens a door to a career in the sciences that would otherwise be unattainable, says Katie Dryden-Holt, interim vocational skills program manager at the UK’s Royal Society of Chemistry. “Apprenticeships enable somebody to gain degree-level qualifications without amassing debt,” she adds. “They open up a fantastic asset to our science community that we would otherwise lose.”
The benefits of an apprenticeship are huge, Dryden-Holt says. Schools try to teach the application of theory, but they can’t teach the professional skills that people learn on the job, she says.
Besides, apprentices gain valuable life skills, Dryden-Holt explains. They have ownership and accountability of projects, learn how to interact with a team and network in a corporate landscape, and find a balance between completing studies and having a full-time job.
The Royal Society of Chemistry is trying to raise awareness of vocational pathways into the chemical sciences through evaluating and accrediting programs and collaborating with colleges to get the word out. “There is a preconception in the UK that apprenticeships are for certain jobs,” such as plumbing, plastering, and electrician trades, Dryden-Holt says. “I don’t think people are aware of them as a route into the sciences.”
For those interested in chemistry, schools in the UK still push the traditional university route, says Kim Hardman, director of apprenticeships for the UK at AstraZeneca. The drugmaker, which has apprentices at all five of its UK sites, is running its own awareness campaigns to bring schools and parents on board with apprenticeships. “Not everybody knows what an apprenticeship is,” Hardman says. Often, she adds, parents are amazed to learn that it can be a way for their children to gain a degree while earning a salary. Apprentices earn at least the national minimum wage, but their pay varies widely depending on the company that employs them and the country they are in.
Despite the relative obscurity of apprenticeships, AstraZeneca does not have to hunt for new apprentices, Hardman says: “They come to us in droves. We’ve seen a significant increase in the number of applications that we are receiving.” AstraZeneca has been running an apprenticeship program for more than 40 years. Currently, the drugmaker is training 127 apprentices in the UK, 24 of these in science positions.
Some aspiring chemists are more excited by coming directly into a scientific organization that is developing lifesaving medicine, and working in the lab from day 1, than by starting at a university, Hardman says. For AstraZeneca, apprentices bring diversity to the workforce, she says. They might come from different financial backgrounds than most university graduates, as well as have different talents and motivations they bring to the job. Apprentices are keen to get started in the working world and to continue their education, Hardman says. “I think what that brings is a different and really exciting option to develop a pipeline of talent.”
At the end of the program, AstraZeneca’s apprentices graduate with 4 years of work experience, Hardman says. Over the past 2 years, 100% of graduating apprentices have become full-time employees. “When we bring them in, we don’t guarantee them a job, [but] it’s very unusual for an apprentice not to stay with us at the end,” Hardman says. “They have developed the skills to be part of the team and are really valuable to us as a business. We have people in the business now who started as our apprentices more than 40 years ago. ”
Vanessa Zainzinger is a freelance writer who covers the chemical industry.