GRAFENWOEHR, Germany -- In addition to seeking avenues for saving money and conserving energy, U.S. Army Garrison Grafenwoehr has been developing a means to protect a different, intangible asset: corporate knowledge.

Of the garrison's 1,700 employees, local nationals comprise 70 percent, and of that percentage, nearly one half are over 50 years old. And when you consider local nationals are required by law to retire at 65, it doesn't take a magic eight ball to predict where that road leads.

To combat this trend, the garrison recently hired four apprentices for the Local National Apprenticeship Program, which is part of a continued effort to retain institutional knowledge and rejuvenate its aging local national workforce.

"When workers retire, they leave a gap and newcomers basically have to start from scratch," said Hans Dumbach, a Workforce Development specialist and coordinator for the garrison's apprenticeship program. "We let all that knowledge slip through the cracks. So this is a way to get young blood into the workforce."

In some ways, the program is similar to the medieval craft guilds. Apprentices learn the ropes for two and half to three years while working for reduced pay, sometimes 3-4 times less than a fully qualified employee. At the end of this period, they are offered a job for 12 months somewhere in the organization.

Organizations save money while supporting the local economy and building a stable workforce. But there's another benefit.

"They're training in the U.S. system from the get-go," said Dumbach, who mentioned it can sometimes take six months to a year for a new, fully qualified worker to acclimate to the particulars of the U.S. environment. "There are certain operational advantages you reap by training your own people," he said.

Although the newest apprentices started with the garrison two months ago, the overall program is almost as old as they are; the first apprentices clocked in 13 years ago for the Maintenance Activity Vilseck. Of those 70 apprentices who completed training between 1998 and 2008, 80 percent still work for MAV, the Joint Multinational Training Command or the Host Nation Logistics Field Operating Agency.

USAG Grafenwoehr did not start hiring apprentices until 2005, but in addition to being one of the largest employers in the area, it is the only garrison in Europe with an apprenticeship program. The program was previously subsidized by the Bavarian State government until 2009; after a two-year hiatus, the garrison kick-started the program this year without the subsidy.

"We see a benefit for us as an organization and the host nation relationship to continue the program on an annual basis," Dumbach said. "We would like to continue the program if the fiscal situation allows."

Four apprentices, who were chosen from more than 40 applicants, began Sept. 1 and are already making an impact.

Office space
On her 20-minute commute from Brandweiher, apprentice Christina Mueller passes familiar fields in Pechhof, Schwarzenbach and Diessfurt. But as she crosses the railroad tracks at Gate 3, Mueller is suddenly worlds away from everything she has come to know in her 21 years.

"It's like a little America here," said Mueller, an office communication clerk for Workforce Development, a division of the Directorate of Human Resources. "There's so much to learn … so many people and you want to remember all their names and do everything perfectly."

Mueller and fellow office communication clerk apprentice Julia Walberer, 19, who works for the Directorate of Public Works, Business Operations and Integration Branch, attend class one day a week in Weiden to polish their business-specific English and become familiar with office-related software.

Back in the office, each will rotate through various divisions every few months within their respective organizations to expand their knowledge.

For example, Mueller has been working in the Workforce Development Branch, learning about the workforce and the various improvement programs available, but will rotate to the Military Personnel Division in December.

"I'm glad to have Christina, and I'm proud of myself because I made a good selection," Dumbach said with a laugh.

Current experience
At 16, electrician's apprentice Joschua Sperber is already being exposed to information and techniques it may have taken him years to learn.

The soft-spoken Sperber said he has been repairing broken light fixtures and extension cords under the supervision of Robert Schuller, a master electrician with 24 years of experience.

"He has done very good thus far," said Schuller. "I'm very pleased with his work."

Every six weeks Sperber attends a two-week class to learn additional practical skills and technical English terms.

In addition, after working for three years he will be required to pass an electrician's exam before he is fully certified.

With every new project, Schuller stresses electrical safety, ingraining good, safe practices into Sperber's routine. When asked if he had ever been shocked, Sperber said: "Once. Not at work," with a shy grin.

The seasoned electrician Schuller laughed.

"By trade, everyone has been burned," he said.

Trees' company
On the other side of post, gardener's apprentice Derron Smith, 16, installs garbage cans and picks up leaves at Rose Barracks' Langenbruck Cemetery in preparation for All Souls' Day.
Smith works as part of a two- or three-person team that does everything from cutting grass and trimming trees to fixing roads and sidewalks.

"There's so much you have to do all at once, it's not just like one thing," Smith said.

He said he enjoyed installing a portion of the sidewalk along Constabulary Boulevard, recently, and that the toughest part of his job will probably come this winter when it's cold outside.

Like Sperber, Smith must pass landscaping exam before he is considered fully certified. In his second and third years he will be required to join a local gardening club for four to six weeks to learn how to maintain major installations such as football fields. For now, he attends class once a week, where has been learning to identify trees, how to cut them correctly and where plant them for optimal growth.

As the four apprentices take the first steps in their careers, the garrison is also evolving -- and like Smith is learning in his class, success is about choosing the right specimens and placing them where they will thrive.