The blog of the Urban Institute
November 13, 2020

Apprenticeships Can Revitalize the American Workforce. The German Company Working on a COVID-19 Vaccine Shows How.

November 13, 2020

On Monday, the German biotechnology company BioNTech and the American pharmaceutical company Pfizer announced they had jointly developed a COVID-19 vaccine that was 90 percent effective against the coronavirus in clinical trials. Although the vaccine is not approved or ready for distribution, Americans welcomed the news; the US has more than 10 million COVID-19 cases and almost 240,000 deaths.

After the announcement, BioNTech received international attention as an immigrant success story and a nimble scientific innovator. But BioNTech also offers a notable blueprint for other companies by taking a forward-looking approach to investing in the skills of its technical staff.

Like many German companies, BioNTech provides structured training to apprentices who master occupational skills through a combination of classroom training and on-the-job mentorship. Research suggests apprenticeship training increases workers’ wages and provides employers with a positive return on investment. Because apprentices learn on the job, they cultivate an understanding of how the material they learn in the classroom is applied in the real world. Apprentices are paid, so they don’t have to forgo earnings during education and training, and they don’t have to take on student debt for their studies.

Policymakers, companies, and workers in the United States have increasingly embraced the training model, but BioNTech’s program can provide lessons on apprenticeship’s potential to meet the needs of the scientific workforce in the US.

BioNTech offers a more expansive model of apprenticeships than most US companies

In proportion to its total workforce, BioNTech hires a large number of apprentices, with its 2020 cohort of 14 apprentices accounting for 1 percent of the company’s total workforce. And this number does not include apprentices hired in previous years who are still employed and advancing through their training. Most apprenticeship programs in the United States are smaller than BioNTech’s. In 2019, a year of strong growth for American apprenticeship, 74 percent of apprenticeship programs hired fewer apprentices than BioNTech’s 14 new trainees. 

The largest programs in the United States are also typically “group” programs jointly operated by a union and more than one employer. Any single employer participating in the large group apprenticeship programs would only be hiring a fraction of the total number of apprentices in that program. In general, American companies do not provide as many apprenticeship opportunities as their German counterparts of the same size.

BioNTech also uses apprenticeship to train for very different positions in the company than many American companies do. The company’s job postings show apprenticeship positions for biology laboratory assistants, chemical laboratory assistants focusing on analysis, and biological-technical assistants. Apprenticeship training produces skilled scientific workers at the core of BioNTech’s operations, whereas in American companies, apprenticeships providing training in scientific occupations are rare.

American apprenticeships do produce highly skilled workers in increasingly technical fields, but in biotechnology or pharmaceutical companies, apprentices are more likely to hold advanced manufacturing and industrial maintenance positions rather than be trained in a research lab. Across all types of employers, the majority of apprenticeships in the United States are in the building trades (electricians and plumbers, for example), with many others in traditional manufacturing roles.

Between 1999 and 2016, more than 1.5 million apprentices were registered to the US Department of Labor, but only 944 were in science and scientific technician occupations. And most of those 944 were horticulturalists, not lab technicians helping develop new vaccines, like BioNTech’s apprentices.

American companies would benefit from supporting more apprenticeship programs in scientific fields

Apprenticeship is an evidence-based solution that raises participants’ employment rates and wages while improving employers’ bottom lines. One of the reasons fewer companies offer apprenticeships in the United States than in other countries is that programs can be difficult to design, register, and support. Urban Institute research finds that most of the American employers that do organize science and engineering apprenticeship programs also sponsor apprentices in more traditional nonscientific fields in addition to their scientific apprenticeships.

Traditional apprenticeship programs can provide employers with a template for enhancing training for their scientists and technicians. Employers could also benefit from the assistance of intermediary organizations and preapproved national occupational standards. Intermediaries guide employers in developing programs, help them navigate the registration process, and coordinate the many partners that are essential to the success of a strong program. Preapproved national occupational standards relieve the burden on employers to develop training from scratch.

The Urban Institute is currently an intermediary to help employers register apprenticeship programs in technological occupations. Efforts, like Urban’s intermediary work, that are closely targeted on nontraditional apprenticeship programs are essential for ensuring employers in the United States approach training the future scientific workforce the way BioNTech does in Germany.

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