In the Parallel World - Wacker Chemie AG

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In the Parallel World

Trainee chemical technicians at the distillation plant take samples and analyze them; the trainees in the electrical workshop sit at the computer and program the process control systems; industrial mechanics cut threads and bend fine pipes. Workflows at the BBiW, WACKER Vocational Training Center in Burghausen, are often very similar to operations at Wacker Chemie AG a few hundred meters away. And that, say the instructors, is deliberate.

Around 40 trainers instruct almost 700 apprentices at the vocational training center. Pictured here are: Maria Obereisenbuchner, Josef Schustereder, Dr. Wolfgang Neef (BBiW head), Thomas Lindner and Walter Niedermeier (from left).

Maria Obereisenbuchner, 26, Walter Niedermeier, 44, Thomas Lindner, 47, and Josef Schustereder, 58, are four of a total of almost 40 trainers who prepare around 680 trainees for working life at the BBiW. All four started their careers at WACKER: Thomas Lindner began an apprenticeship in 1982 as an electronics technician for energy facilities, and later qualified as a master craftsman. Josef Schustereder came to WACKER as a plant operator in 1984. A few years later he completed his training as a chemical technician. In 1996, he passed his qualifying examination as a master chemical technician.

Walter Niedermeier started at WACKER in 1985 after an apprenticeship as a fitter and then a fusion welder. He too obtained his master craftsman qualification and additionally trained as a German Welding Society certified welding instructor. In the case of Maria Obereisenbuchner, not so long ago she herself attended the BBiW, where she trained as an industrial mechanic. She passed her final exam in 2007, then gained several years' operating experience at WACKER before transferring to the BBiW as a trainer in 2013.

All four came to the realization that the idea of sharing their professional experience with others appealed to them. None of them has regretted the decision to switch from WACKER to the BBiW, even if the job as a trainer is anything but simple. “We instruct kids from non-academic backgrounds and high-school graduates – our trainees are a very heterogeneous group,” says Walter Niedermeier. “Our skill lies in harmonizing the differences between these individuals and forming a consolidated group.” How does this work? “We intentionally form groups of trainees with mixed abilities.” And if a trainee is having difficulties, the instructors jointly agree on how they can best support him or her.

A key factor here is appreciation rather than strictness. “I remember a trainee who arrived with a bright red Mohawk hairstyle and who had no inclination to learn,” says Josef Schustereder. “After three weeks he was the first to arrive and the last to leave.” Schustereder had allotted him demanding tasks and told him: “You have two hours to produce a result.” The boy soon realized that he was technically gifted and that he even enjoyed the work. After three years, he still had red hair but was amongst the top achievers.

The intensive training at the BBiW workshops and labs guarantee a close intermeshing of theory and practice.

The instructors at BBiW not only work with young people, but also conduct advanced training and specialist courses. Spanning 11,000 square meters, there are chemistry and physics laboratories, computer rooms and several workshops, from the turning shop to the welding site. And there are scaled-down WACKER production facilities where the trainees can learn the precise procedures they will later need on the site premises.

The BBiW was established in 1969 as a WACKER Chemie AG foundation, and the instructors are still employed by WACKER. But there are more than 21 other companies in the region whose junior employees are trained at BBiW.

Since the advent of the Internet, the strengths and weaknesses of many trainees have changed. “Manual skills have declined,” says Thomas Lindner, “hardly anyone still carves with a pocket knife. And half of our trainees have never patched a bicycle tube or held an electric drill.”

On the other hand, many are highly competent on computers. Consequently, the first year of training at the BBiW covers learning how to handle tin snips and vise – and at the end of it, the trainees are just as skilled in their trades as previous generations. Despite intensive marketing measures, the number of female trainees in technical occupations has increased only slightly in recent years, and is currently in of the order of 10 percent. “In the chemical sector, the proportion of women is much higher; it varies between 50 and 80 percent depending on the type of job,” says Maria Obereisenbuchner.

The trainers themselves also regularly attend advanced training courses. “Technology progresses and examination regulations keep changing,” says Josef Schustereder, “so we have to stay on the ball.” Once a year, however, there is a “must-attend” event, where the instructors forget all the examination regulations. “That’s in May,” says Schustereder, “when all the BBiW employees meet up after work to go to the Burghausen Maiwiesn [funfair and cultural festival].”