Taiwan's Swiss Apprenticeship Program
Making Masterful Mechanics
A chain link-style "vocational high school-technical university-corporate" collaborative model and the legacy of Swiss apprenticeship system is putting specialized technical certification in the hands of 18 year-old students.
Making Masterful MechanicsBy Nana Lin
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 511 )
It's the break of winter in early November but it feels like a scorching hot summer day. Inside the SHL Group's azure blue Taoyuan plant space are rows of precision instruments costing as much as a luxury home. Peering through his glasses, Yang Shu-min, who just graduated from Mucha Vocational School (MCVS) this past summer, is going through the process of precision die-cast electrical discharge machining with a senior mentor. Under his skilled hands, the die slowly begins to take shape.
Meanwhile, another recent MCVS graduate, Cheng Ru-yi, is seated in the SHL offices using the latest graphics software to break down three-dimensional graphic images into two-dimensional images.
"It's a real feeling of accomplishment to take a skill I learned in school and apply it at work and make a real contribution to the company," Cheng says.
On Saturday afternoons, Cheng, Yang and 14 other young employees shed their corporate uniforms and head for the campus of National Taipei University of Technology (NTUT). On campus, other university students are on the ball fields or sitting in cafes whiling away the afternoon, but this group of 16 is about to start class.
Although they've all only just turned 18, each possesses at least two vocational certifications. These include such skills as mechanical drawing, computer-assisted three-dimensional mechanical drafting, die casting, milling machine operation, or computer numeric controlled milling machine operation. Technical certifications that often take others years to acquire, these kids were able to secure through examination prior to graduation from MCVS.
Yet without the active participation of MCVS, NTUT and SHL Group in Taiwan's first-ever "Swiss Apprenticeship Program," this group of technically gifted students would likely have never gotten the chance to study tuition-free at one of Taiwan's top three technical universities and would have had a hard time applying their technical skills at a company within their area of expertise under Taiwan's existing recruiting system.
For the origins of the story of Taiwan's version of the "Swiss Apprenticeship Program," we have to go back in time a year.
Sweden's Scandinavian Health Limited Group (SHL) is the world's largest privately owned designer, developer and manufacturer of advanced drug delivery devices. As it happens, some of SHL's drug delivery systems production facilities are located here in Taiwan, and those facilities require staffing by a large number of skilled technicians familiar with operating precision machinery.
Several years ago, SHL, accustomed as it was to the legacy of the European apprenticeship system, found a serious fault in Taiwan's human resources development. The average graduate of the nation's university mechanical engineering departments was lacking in basic hands-on skills and had a tough time getting the hang of it. But in the highly precise field of medical instrument die casting, errors and revisions were unacceptable; what they needed were highly competent technicians with attention to detail.
So last year SHL entered into talks on the possibility of a cooperative arrangement with MCVS, which has distinguished itself in mechanical subjects.
"Past collaborations between academia and industry or other internships mostly viewed the students as a substitute labor force, says MCVS principal Hsu Chen-huei. "Once the internship began it often turned out to be far different from what the students had imagined, and they would lose the motivation to learn."
But the approach SHL proposed was much different from what Hsu had seen in the past.
This year SHL hand-picked 16 of the school's most promising students to come to work at the company as salaried precision machinery processing technician trainees upon graduation. At the company, they are each assigned a senior mentor to lead them in their duties and show them the ropes in a one-on-one mentor-protégé system. What's more, every three months, they are transferred to another department to allow the trainees to broaden their technical skill base. Only after three years of training do the apprentices select one skill as their specialty.
One need only walk onto SHL's corporate campus to see the trainees, clad in their light gray uniforms, going about their day. Senior technician Tzeng Sheng-chie, a 14-year veteran, voices strong approval for the spirit of the apprenticeship program. There's an inevitable gap in what you learn in school and what you actually use, Tzeng says. Groping in the dark to find your own way takes inordinately longer. One-on-one apprenticeships are the way to go to produce highly skilled technicians, he says.
What's more, SHL also demands that its trainees continue their educational endeavors and raise their level of technical expertise. So SHL partnered with NTUT to set up specialized classes, the curriculum for which is designed in a collaborative effort between the company and the school.
Diploma in One Hand, Paycheck in the Other
The formula for past academia-industry collaborative efforts tended toward work in the daytime with evenings spent taking classes at the continuing education departments of local universities. But as SHL saw it, working full-time and studying was just too demanding, so they proposed that trainees need only work Monday through Thursday, while reporting to NTUT for classes on Fridays and Saturdays.
Under this arrangement, students are able to work toward certification while collecting a full salary. Monthly salary is NT$22,000 plus four years of university tuition assistance to boot. The company's approach of being willing to expend the time and effort to cultivate new technicians has more than a few MCVS students crossing their fingers that they'll be selected for the program next year. SHL expects to have another 20 slots open by then.
The chain link-style "vocational high school-technical university-corporate" collaborative model is a new dish on the menu of Taiwan's educational establishment. As NTUT dean Yao Li-teh puts it, this approach of strengthening students' technical and theoretical capabilities while meeting the demands of industry "is the only way you're going to succeed in turning out actual highly educated, highly skilled technicians."
Translated from the Chinese by Brian Kennedy