The UK often looks to Europe for inspiration on apprenticeships. Tom Bewick suggests a glance across the pond instead.

American apprenticeships are perhaps an unlikely example of a world-class system in the making.

Yet, in his state of the union address in January, President Barack Obama said he wanted, “more on-the-job training, and more apprenticeships that set a young worker on an upward trajectory for life.”

To back up the Obama Administration’s aim to double the number of apprenticeships by 2017, Congress has been asked to approve an additional $2bn (£1.2bn) of spending on ‘modern apprenticeships’.

While the US Department of Labor focuses on central coordination — including providing better information for apprentices and employers through a new website — the individual states are left largely to get on and innovate with new types of apprenticeship design and delivery.

And much of what is being implemented is similar in tone, if not in detail, to what Doug Richard has been calling for here.

Trailblazer states like South Carolina are providing a positive feedback loop to the federal government on what works (and what doesn’t) in driving high quality apprenticeships.

Brad Neese, executive director of the publicly funded body Apprenticeships Carolina — a brand name the state government has trademark protected — puts his organisation’s stellar performance down to three main things.

Technical colleges have a lot of individual freedom and the kind of industry-education links that would leave most FE colleges in the UK standing

First, South Carolina has increased the number of apprentices by just over 600 per cent in seven years, he says, because of “where the skills and workforce development piece sits in the state’s overall economic development agenda”.

Designing apprenticeships that work is not some technocratic backwater, as it can be in England, but integral to the state government’s foreign direct investment and wider jobs strategy.

To put that in perspective, South Carolina — about the same size as Wales — attracted more that $5bn (£3.2bn) in foreign investment capital in 2013, creating more than 15,000 new jobs.

European companies like BMW are flocking to the area, while American companies such as Boeing and Continental Tyres are expanding operations along with their supply chains.

All this adds up to a new manufacturing hub, where 85 per cent of new jobs created have been in advanced manufacturing. With less unionisation than states in the mid-West, like Michigan, South Carolina is perceived as a much more business friendly destination.

The second reason is the inspiring performance of the state’s 16 technical colleges.

Founded more than 50 years ago after the collapse of the traditional textiles mills, the system prides itself on its “lack of specificity” and the absence of “excessive rules and formalities that suck the life out of people”.

Technical colleges have a lot of individual freedom and the kind of industry-education links that would leave most FE colleges in the UK standing.

Indeed, the new chief executive of the system office coordinating all 16 technical colleges, Dr Jimmie Williamson, sums up the interchange between the public and corporate sector quite well.

Dr Williamson was himself a principal of two technical colleges in the state before being poached by a private healthcare provider where he introduced America’s first nursing apprenticeships.

Returning to the public sector, he has negotiated a continued role with the State education board and his ex-private sector employer, allowing him to continue in a consulting role because “the tech system has always been responsive to the market”, he says.

Underwriting that responsiveness is one of the flagship policies of the South Carolina model: the $1,000 tax credit per apprentice, per year, for up to four years.

Both Dr Williamson and Mr Neese see this as just one of the “important tools in the box”, because it has helped open up the conversation with some firms that have traditionally been suspicious of government initiatives.

Indeed, to the outside observer, you would be forgiven for thinking that apprenticeships in South Carolina had anything to do with government at all, since everything about how the model operates is far removed from Leviathan or a bureaucracy.

Tom Bewick, director and chief economist, International Skills Standards Organisation (INSSO

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INSSO, in partnership with FE Week, is organising a study tour to Canada and the USA on June 8 to 14. Visit www.insso.org/studytour for details.