Labor shortages. Workers who don’t last more than a week. Young people who aren’t interested in careers in the trades.

If you’ve been paying attention to the door and window industry for the past few years, you’ve heard variations on these themes almost daily. The lack of skilled labor is a huge issue that affects the manufacture and installation of fenestration products.

But one major player is doing something to address the problem – and its efforts could inspire similar initiatives.

I just returned from Veka Academy, a two-day educational session at the company’s headquarters near Pittsburgh that provides an overview of the industry for new and mid-level workers, many of whom come from other industries. A lot of companies don’t have time to train people, and that’s where Veka Academy comes into play. It’s a mix of classroom instruction and hands-on experience via an in-depth plant tour – and it was a great experience. I got a good refresher course on some door and window basics, as well as my first up-close look at the vinyl extrusion process.

While Veka Academy is an important part of the training the company offers to its industry partners, it’s one of several programs it’s launched in recent years for workforce development. One that could have the most impact is Veka’s apprenticeships. (Timely to mention, considering that it’s National Apprenticeship Week.)

In February, the Pittsburgh chapter of the German American Chamber of Commerce recognized Veka’s Thomas Van De Bunt for establishing a German-style apprenticeship model at the company, one of the first in the state of Pennsylvania for the plastics industry.

Van De Bunt completed an apprenticeship program in Germany in the early 1980s before moving to the United States to continue his career with Veka. Now, he runs all the company’s training programs in North America.

So how does the German apprenticeship system work? Here’s a good description of it from a 2013 study on vocational education by the Manhattan Institute:

“Young people spend some time in the classroom and some time—generally at least half the week—on the job in the workplace, participating in the production process and solving real problems under the supervision of a working mentor. … Some 60 percent of German youth enter the workforce through apprenticeships, most going straight to dual training rather than to university. … In most cases, it works: some 60 percent of apprentices are offered permanent employment at the firm where they train, while the overwhelming majority end up working in the same field.”

I met one of Veka’s apprentices on my final day in Pennsylvania. Andrew Johnson has been in the program for more than a year, and during that time he’s gained skills that can lead to a high-paying job right now — and he hasn’t had to invest the time and money required for a four-year undergraduate degree.

“By the time I’m done, I’ll be able to run CNC machines, plus run the extrusion lines,” Johnson said. “Right now, I can pretty much start and run an extrusion line 100 percent. Basically, I’m the test subject (for the apprenticeship program).”

Here’s hoping the experiment is a success. Our industry needs a lot more bright, driven young people like Andrew — and a lot more programs like this one.

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