If you had walked through the halls of Georgia Northwestern Technical College in Rome for the past two weeks, you might have picked up a little German. The school has hosted a trio of German apprentice students as part of a partnership with the Herz Foundation that will send the students out to work for the next eight weeks with U.S. companies.
This is the fifth year the Technical College System of Georgia has worked with the Herz Foundation, but the first time GNTC has hosted any of the apprentices. Statewide, 15 German students are in the U.S. participating in the ten-week program.
GNTC President Pete McDonald said the students are typically in the second year of a three- to four-year apprenticeship program in Germany
"The students go through a very elaborate vetting process," McDonald said. “They are qualified through many layers of testing and it’s a high honor for them to be selected."
The students being hosted by GNTC include Benjamin Berger, 21, from Erding, who is in his third year with BMW AG Standort Landshut. His specialty is a metal casting mechanic.
Jan Gaertner, 19, from Rosenheim, is a second-year apprentice with Hans Sporer GmBH. He is a young electronics technician specializing in energy and building technology.
Christoph Gurok is a 19-year-old second-year apprentice from Schwarzenbek, who is a specialist in computer systems integration with Fiege Logistick Stiftung & Co. KG.
"They’re very industrious and have a great work ethic," McDonald said. "I think they are pleasant, their English is very good."
Gaertner spent four months teaching himself English before coming to the U.S. in mid-March. He wrote down English words on index cards along with the German translation and memorized them religiously night after night.
Their two-week classroom stint at GNTC ended Friday. Monday morning they will report to work, Berger at Voestalpine, an Austrian auto parts supplier in Bartow County; Gurok at Mohawk in Dalton, where he will work in the IT department; Gaertner will remain in Rome on the GNTC campus doing electrical systems work on a number of big construction projects underway on campus.
The students are living with host families in Bartow, Gordon and Floyd counties.
"Two of our host families this year are actually college employees. Dick Tanner, who teaches Instrumentation and Controls, as well as Brad Cooper, who is one of our data specialists," McDonald said. Tanner is hosting Gaertner, Cooper is hosting Berger, while Gurok is being hosted by a family in Calhoun.
The college is responsible for transporting the students to their work sites and homes daily. However, all of the costs are picked up by the Herz Foundation.
"There’s no cost to the state of Georgia," McDonald said. "The foundation pays the host families for their expenses while they’re here for the food, transportation, the basic kind of things."
Berger said he is excited about the opportunity to work for an auto parts supplier in the U.S.
"I think it’s a great opportunity for apprentices like us to have this experience and to have a view about this country, not in a tourism view, but we also have a view about real living and the working world,” Berger said.
He also explained he believes the companies which are hosting the German students will learn more about the German apprenticeship model.
Gurok said he applied to participate in the program to see what the companies and technical colleges are like in the U.S. His specialty is in systems integration, which focuses primarily on computer software.
"My English skills will be much better than before," Gurok said. He believes that will ultimately make him even more valuable to his company in Germany.
The link to the future at home is important because, Berger explained, many companies who invest in apprentices also get them to sign contracts stipulating that they will remain with the company after their apprenticeship is completed.
Gaertner said he is looking forward to learning more about the American way of living.
"I want to see the country, the surrounding areas and the way of working. It's very interesting for me to see the difference," Gaertner said. "I want the things I learned here to use in my future, for the next steps in my career.”
Rome-Floyd Chamber of Commerce President Al Hodge said the German apprenticeship model is something he has been keenly interested in for years.
"Virtually every time I talk with a German business executive and we're talking about the workforce they always ask about the German apprenticeship program," Hodge said. "It would be a real benefit if we had a robust apprenticeship program here."
McDonald said that's something he hopes will evolve from participating in the program with the Herz Foundation.
"The TCSG has been working for the last few years to understand how we can better use an apprenticeship model of education and work," McDonald said. "This is a great opportunity for the companies and us here at the college to understand that firsthand, to talk with them, see what they’re experiencing."
McDonald and executive vice president at GNTC Heidi Popham went to Germany last year where they visited several companies and technical schools to see how the apprenticeship program works.
"The whole country — the companies, the German Chamber of Commerce, the schools and the local communities — work together to fund their education," McDonald said. "The companies actually take the lead in this entire arrangement. They view the next generation of workers as their responsibility, to develop them, to provide an environment so they can be trained and nurtured along and when they are 21 or 22, they can become their full-time employees."
The Rome educators are hoping that once the German apprentices get into their U.S. companies, they can occasionally pull the young men out to speak to students in local college and career academies to share their experience and talk about the type of education and work they have in Germany.
McDonald is also hopeful that before long, the program can develop into a real exchange program, not just for students, but for faculty members as well.
"We are having conversations about this and, of course, one of the major challenges is the cost of travel and accommodations," McDonald said. "We are working on that and we are looking for grants."