The Power to Converge: New Apprenticeship Models in the U.S. South and Mexico

Publication Type:

Conference Paper


Gerpisa colloquium, Paris (2016)


economic development, Mexico, North America, skill upgrading, U.S., workforce development


The massive restructuring in the 1990s of manufacturing firms in North America undermined the social contract between employers and workers, exposing employment relations to market forces (Cappelli 1999). My own research shows that since the 1990s, some individual automotive firms and small automotive clusters have made aggressive attempts to restore the employment contract with certain types of workers—low- and mid-level technicians—through the practice of apprenticeship in the US. South and central Mexico.

Because these trends seem to have important regional context and reach, they highlight the potential for regional divergence. Additionally, because these apprenticeship programs are focused on only a segment of the workforce and operate without representation from organized labor, they also would seem to exacerbate labor market segmentation within the automotive industry. However, emerging patterns of program replication and policy diffusion suggest that the practice of apprenticeship might, with the support of the public education sector, become incorporated into a more broadly applied inclusive training and employment policy.

Smaller multinational firms, particularly those from Germany and other European countries with strong vocational training systems, are central to local program development. To understand the context for their investments in apprenticeship in the U.S. South and central Mexico, it is important to how small firm power is enabled by position in global supply chains, relationships with other firms, and relationships with other local and global organizations, particularly institutions of public education and technical training.

The Global Value Chains (GVC) literature has demonstrated that strong lead firms in producer-led GVCs like the automotive industry have considerable market power to leverage in negotiations with suppliers and an important role in the diffusion of labor standards (Barrientos, Gereffi, Rossi 2011). Workforce development systems in the U.S. are often assumed to be a byproduct of large firm influence, and scholars of political economy have suggested declining firm size will undermine opportunities for states and localities to develop and sustain robust training and skill development infrastructure (Berger 2013). Scholars of economic geography have noted the overwhelming power that large firms have over smaller firms in shaping workforce development systems (Christopherson and Clark 2007: 1224; Markusen 1996: 302-303). But what these scholars fail to recognize is that smaller firms, particularly small multinational firms, have been more dependent on those systems and, through their engagement, have introduced innovations to service delivery that might actually have had a greater influence on system development.

While we know that smaller firms can contribute to innovative and sustainable industrial clusters of various configurations (Piore and Sabel 1984; Markusen 1996), we are missing an understanding of how those systems develop and change due to small firm influence on institutions. Even when firms do have access to lead firm knowledge through contracting and other interactions, OEMs “cannot internally create all of the various capabilities needed for global competition” (Contreras & Carrillo 2010: 25). Alternative mechanisms for knowledge transfer, such as technical training programs, also inform upgrading and skill development processes in GVCs (Ramirez & Rainbird 2010: 699). In their paper on GVC interventions in Latin America by international organizations, Pietrobelli and Staritz encourage GVC scholars and practitioners: “to consider the potential role of the involvement of lead firms and first-tier suppliers/ intermediaries, and the importance of innovation systems and local learning efforts to enable upgrading processes within GVCs,” (Pietrobelli and Staritz 2013).

The appearance of new apprenticeship programs in the U.S. South, Mexico and throughout the Americas has occurred through various pathways of policy transference and program adaptation at the sub-national level. Therefore subnational or regional studies are important to understanding these trends. While new local apprenticeship programs are small in scope, their development calls attention to how small multinational firms are shaping local training and education programs as they seek strategic labor market advantage.

This paper describes how different forms of power may constrain and enable investments in regional labor markets and how spatial configurations, such as the co-location of lead firms and supplier networks, may have informed the possibilities for change. Relational networks between firms and non-firm actors, such as the government and educational organizations, help explain changes in worker training and education better than an analysis of markets and firms alone.

In this paper, I highlight a couple local apprenticeship programs against a backdrop of detailed information on a variety of training and education activity in specific sub-national regions/states in the U.S. South and central Mexico since the 1990s. I rely on secondary sources (news articles, meeting reports, policy reports) and data from semi-structured in-depth interviews to construct the local history of apprenticeship program development. I conducted 53 interviews in August 2014 and July 2015 in the central Mexican states of Mexico, Puebla, Tlaxcala and Guanajuato. The majority of the interviews and observations took place in Puebla, Mexico. Interviewees were identified through a snowball sampling method, beginning with prominent organizations. Twelve interviews were with staff at OEMs; 11 with staff at suppliers; eight with industry or employer associations; seven with public universities; six with private universities; three with state officials; two with private training providers; four with other experts. Similar studies are underway in the U.S. states of Tennessee and South Carolina.

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