“Fun” was not a word people typically associated with apprenticeships. The prevailing sentiment was “We all have to start somewhere,” and professional training was seen as a means to toughen up apprentices in preparation for their professional career. Yet Udo Schlickenrieder is convinced that it doesn’t have to be this way! When he became Training Manager for ZEISS’ German sites three years ago, he already had several clear goals in mind: To adjust the curriculum, to create cutting-edge training processes, to accommodate the particular needs of young people and to ensure that ZEISS enjoys a competitive edge. All these goals have been realized. The company has one of the most innovative professional training programs in Germany which prepares apprentices and students for tomorrow’s challenges today.
“When I took this job, the company was offering a sound, traditional training program,” recalls Udo Schlickenrieder, who is currently responsible for around 250 apprentices and 150 students enrolled in a cooperative education program (Co-Op) at ZEISS. “A look at the curriculum for the apprenticeship program revealed that little had changed at universities and companies in a long time. Changing tact, modernizing the program and implementing a new training concept requires an enormous amount of effort, and both instructors and students need to be on board. All in all, this can be rather tough going. Nevertheless, we had and still have to react to external factors so that young people consider us to be an attractive employer and a good place to do their training. Globalization and digital transformation, robots and networked machines are gradually performing more of the work in production – all these changes force us to act and adjust to this new reality affecting the manufacturing process and the company as a whole,” explains Udo Schlickenrieder. “You have to be realistic. At manufacturing companies, jobs performing more straightforward tasks will continue to disappear because of automation – that much is clear. Thus we have to ensure that we teach people the advanced skills they will need in the future. Our goal is to ensure that the skilled worker of tomorrow is not just biding their time until a robot can step in, but oversees the actual machines. In the future, shop floor employees will be responsible for understanding the networked machinery, maintaining it, identify errors and fixing them quickly. Of course, we still teach our apprentices how to file and drill so that they develop a certain understanding of the materials,” he says, smiling. “Retaining the core content of a traditional apprenticeship program is essential, but that’s certainly not all we teach!”
Ensuring that apprentices acquire the necessary know-how for the future is a top priority at ZEISS. New digital technologies and learning methods are already a standard part of the program. For example: in cooperation with the nearby Technical University of Aalen, the company has set up a Smart Factory where the next generation of employees can prepare for the challenges of digitalization. And that is not all. In addition to using 3D printers, all apprentices and Co-Op students receive their own tablet or laptop. “This way, everyone can log into the company’s internal digital learning platform at any time. Here they can access different online courses that present the content in a really engaging manner,” says the Training Manager. Part of the new apprenticeship program focuses on robotics. Group and project work, including with apprentices from other areas of the company or students, fosters a cross-divisional mindset increasingly important in the workplace. Each student completing a Co-Op program receives a personalized schedule at the beginning of their training that takes them to various areas in the company, providing the ideal foundation for later joining ZEISS as a full-fledged employee.
“For us, it’s not just about providing our apprentices with a solid basis for their future careers. We also want to positively impact these young people’s future. As part of the ‘Fit for Life’ program offered by Health Management at ZEISS and in cooperation with hospitals and the police, our apprentices take part in a variety of courses focused on issues like exercising, coping with stress, eating healthy and preventing addiction,” says Udo Schlickenrieder. Attention is also paid to developing international expertise. Whoever wants to know how a measuring machine is assembled in Shanghai has a receptive audience at ZEISS. “A lot of our apprentices and Co-Op students decide to spend several weeks abroad during their time here,” he says. Chances for expanding theoretical and practical knowledge pave the way for entirely new opportunities. There is also a ‘junior company’ at ZEISS. Here up-and-coming talents can take on responsibility, show what they can do and learn about the complex interdependencies at a company while also having fun. “Once they’ve completed their apprenticeship with us, they are prepared for both their career and life!” says Udo Schlickenrieder, summing up the general approach to professional training at ZEISS. “There aren’t that many companies as far along as us,” he says. Not surprisingly, he is especially proud when the generally very good final grades of the apprentices and Co-Op students confirm the high-quality training young people receive at ZEISS. “An apprentice at our company was named one of the very best in Germany. Getting to accompany this person to the prize day in Berlin was a particularly special moment for me,” he recalls.
Udo Schlickenrieder has always enjoyed helping young people prepare for the future and accompanying them on their journey from adolescence into adulthood. “After the parents, we are the most important role models during this phase when young people are first becoming full-fledged adults. Thus it’s essential that our staff not only provides high-quality training, but also leads them along the right path. Before taking on this position, I was a Production Manager at the ZEISS Semiconductor Manufacturing Technology business group. I dealt with a lot of students and apprentices as part of my job. Even then I could envision that my path would take me in this direction at some point,” says Udo Schlickenrieder, who studied to be optoelectronics engineer and has been working at ZEISS for more than 20 years. For him, anyone with the necessary grit should consider completing their apprenticeship or Co-Op program at ZEISS. “These days, applicants come from so many different types of high schools that it is becoming even more difficult to compare them based on grades alone. Thus we developed an online testing procedure that is customized to the particular position. Each applicant must complete it. It’s obviously no walk in the park. You have to take your time and be persistent. One of the things we want to measure is a person’s willingness to persevere. That’s a key part of our intense selection process” he explains. Ultimately, it is a question of finding people who are a good fit for the company. They should be inquisitive, driven and have good social skills. Udo Schlickenrieder is confident that “professional training at ZEISS is not just an important cornerstone for recruiting the next generation of employees. Ideally, it also prepares participants for life and is even fun! To achieve these goals, we need to think and plan ahead while always keeping an eye on the future. That’s what I personally find so exciting about my job.”