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In Search for New Workers, Manufacturers Turn to Apprentices

NEWS & RECORD BY JOHN NEWSOM, THE News & Record of Greensboro

WHITSETT, N.C. (AP) — About three years ago, Garrison Weavil got wind of a deal that seemed too good to be true.

A counselor at Southeast Guilford High told him that if he signed up to be an apprentice, he’d have a guaranteed full-time job — plus benefits — for four years. His GTCC classes would be paid for. After four years, he would have a debt-free associate’s degree and a journeyworker’s card that practically guarantees employment.

Weavil remembers the reactions of some of his classmates — “They were saying, ‘No way, they’re not going to pay for college,” he said — but he was intrigued.

Weavil took the deal, and in 2016 joined the first class of apprentices assembled by Guilford Apprenticeship Partners. This coalition of local companies, most of them manufacturers, is signing up high school-aged apprentices.

As companies struggle to find enough workers with the technical skills they want and as more high school students and their families question the rising cost of a four-year college degree, GAP and Weavil are trailblazers in a third way for high school graduates — not college, not a job but both at the same time. In just three years, GAP and similar programs in Alamance, Randolph and Rockingham counties have signed up 153 young apprentices. The number of high school apprentices in North Carolina has more than doubled in two years.

Many factors explain this surge. The biggest one might just be money.

“We’re giving them a $125,000 college scholarship,” said Todd Poteat, vice president of manufacturing at Bright Plastics in Greensboro and chairman of GAP. “That’s a conservative number.”

Apprentices have existed for about as long as there have been jobs. The rules that govern apprentices in the United States today date to the 1930s.

Traditionally in the U.S., apprentices are usually found in the construction trades — plumbing, carpentry, electrical and other related fields. Companies or unions usually create and run their own apprentice programs that combine on-the-job training and classroom instruction. Most apprentice programs last about four years. Completers get a nationally recognized certificate that tells employers they have a particular skill.

About 530,000 apprentices took part in about 22,000 registered programs in 2017, according to the latest federal figures. But most apprentices aren’t young. The average age of North Carolina’s 8,500 apprentices is roughly 30.

Labor experts say that’s largely because of the “college for all” mindset on display in most high schools. High schools push most of their graduates toward two- or four-year colleges, and many parents resist efforts to steer their children into vocational programs.

In Europe, however, high school apprenticeships are the norm. When Swiss and German companies built factories in the U.S. in the 1990s, they brought that tradition with them. North Carolina’s first youth apprentice program was started in 1995 by an Austrian company that makes kitchen cabinet hardware at a factory outside Charlotte. Other U.S. companies took notice.

Young people are only a fraction of all apprentices. In North Carolina, according to N.C. Community College System statistics, only 5 percent of apprentices are in high school, and only about 10 percent are enrolled in GAP and similar programs that recruit students while they’re still in high school.

But labor experts who follow apprentice programs say their numbers are growing.

“What we’ve seen is that the kids are more loyal and they tend to stay” where they work as apprentices, said Pamela Howze, who has worked with youth apprentice programs in Charlotte, in North Carolina and nationally in her current job as new program director for the National Fund for Workforce Solutions in Washington, D.C.

“So many high school kids don’t have a clue what they want to do with their futures,” Howze added. “It’s a great way to tap into students who don’t want to go to a university.”

On a Thursday night in August, 40 soon-to-be-official apprentices sit near the front of the mostly full auditorium at GTCC.

“We’re in a race for talent that doesn’t have any finish line. GAP is answering that call for talent in our community,” said Deborah Hooper, chief operating officer of the Greensboro Chamber of Commerce. She’s one of several speakers of the night who offers advice and encouragement to the new apprentices.

One by one, they’re called on stage. They represent 12 of Guilford County Schools’ 15 traditional high schools. About half of them graduated from high school two months earlier. The other half have their senior year to go.

As music plays and their parents cheer, these young people shake the hands of the Greensboro and High Point mayors, sign a contract and get a hat from their new employer — hats that read HYFAB and Endura Products and Ziehl-Abegg. The new apprentices get a standing ovation at the end of the night.

The ceremony looks a lot like the ones held each year in high school gyms and libraries for athletes who get scholarships to play in college. But there are no surprise announcements at the GAP event.

The apprentices have already met the program’s standards — a 2.5 GPA, three years of high school math, decent SAT or ACT scores and a good work ethic shown by missing no more than a handful of school days each year. They also worked six weeks this summer at where they’ll be apprentices. This pre-apprentice tryout is by design, said Poteat, the Bright Plastics vice president. This ensures that the GAP companies and the new apprentices both know what they’re getting.

GAP came about because local employers couldn’t get the workers they wanted. Their workers were retiring or getting close to retirement age. The want ads were too passive. Community colleges weren’t turning out enough workers. And everyone was quoting the same National Association of Manufacturers stat about the skills gap: as many as 2 million manufacturing jobs will go unfilled because there aren’t enough qualified workers.

In 2014, the Community Foundation of Greater Greensboro gathered together several local companies and came up with a model based on a Charlotte program, Apprenticeship 2000, started two decades earlier.

Companies would offer four-year apprenticeships to qualified students who were either rising high school seniors or recent graduates. The apprentices would work full-time and be paid — $9 to start and $13 in the fourth year, plus benefits — not only when they were on the job but also when in class.

Tuition and books at GTCC would be covered, and apprentices would work toward an associate’s degree in manufacturing technology.

After four years, apprentices could opt to stay on at market-rate salaries — $20 and up in most cases — or take their journeyworker’s card and look for work elsewhere.

It’s a long-term commitment for both employer and employee, said Donna Newton, who as director of workforce initiatives for the Community Foundation helped launch GAP.

“They’re not just seeing an employee for today,” Newton said. “They’re seeing a pipeline for workers.”

The pipeline keeps growing. In 2016, the GAP program’s first year, four companies hired 14 apprentices. (That first class has shrunk to 10 because four apprentices have dropped out.)

The next year, GAP grew to 11 companies and 23 apprentices. The 40 new apprentices in this year’s class are working at 26 local companies. GAP members were exclusively manufacturing companies for the first two years. Heating and air-conditioning companies joined this year. Part of a $3.2 million grant in this year’s state budget will help expand youth apprentice programs in Guilford, Alamance, Randolph and Rockingham counties. GAP might extend apprenticeships into industries such as logistics, information technology, cybersecurity and aviation.

Smart companies are hiring and training apprentices and other young workers because workplaces are changing so quickly that high schools and technical colleges can no longer keep up, said Brent Parton, deputy director of the Center on Education and Skills at New America, a Washington, D.C., think tank.

High school students are easy to find, and many are still making up their minds about college and careers, added Parton, the author of a recent report on youth apprenticeships in the U.S. But apprentice programs like GAP are finding success because a college education is part of the package.

“If apprenticeships are going to thrive in the United States, they can’t be seen as an alternative to higher education,” Parton said. “It has to be a way to and through (college). College credit is still the coin of the realm.”

Business is booming at Machine Specialties Inc.

Its Whitsett plant employs 220 people who use CNC machines — some as big as city buses — to turn out special-ordered, hard-to-make metal parts for planes, helicopters, satellites and rockets. MSI workers also use these complicated computerized routers, milling and cutting machines to make metal pieces used in hip and knee replacements.

Company CEO Rob Simmons said business is so good that he has about $200 million in back orders and is planning to put in an addition next year that will nearly double the size of the factory.

What’s holding back the company’s growth is labor. Which is why MSI has 38 apprentices, a number that includes Garrison Weavil, 14 from this year’s GAP class and nine more from the Rockingham County program.

“My problem always has been that I can’t find enough help,” Simmons said. “These guys” — his apprentices — “are pretty productive. We’re talking kids, a high quality of kid, who can go to college if they want. But they’re electing to take a different path.”

Simmons admits that he’s saving now on labor costs. Long term, however, he’ll be hiring these apprentices as permanent employees at about $25 an hour, maybe more, plus benefits and bonuses. Moreover, he’s grooming these apprentices to be programmers and sales reps and supervisors — the company’s future, in other words.

“My plan is to retain every single one of them,” Simmons said. “I’ve got four or five years invested in them, and they know us. .

“They’re very loyal to us because we recruited them, and we’re very loyal to them.”

Halfway through his apprenticeship, Weavil likes what he has seen. He has moved from working with a basic three-axis CNC machine to learning how to set up the five-axis machine that makes more complex pieces.

The work comes pretty easily. He has always worked with his hands. He helped his dad restore a 1969 Chevrolet truck, and he got good grades in his carpentry, drafting and automotive classes at Southeast. But he’s busy. He’s at the plant four days a week. On Friday he’s taking classes all day at GTCC.

Weavil is already talking to MSI about a new deal when his apprenticeship ends in 2020. He’s hoping the company will pay for him to get a mechanical engineering degree at N.C. State if he returns to work at MSI after he graduates.

He says he could have gone to N.C. State right out of high school, but he didn’t want to be, as he put it, “a book-smart engineer with no hands-on experience.”

By putting in his time as a GAP apprentice, Weavil said, “I just felt like it could give me a chance to learn more, to get a head start on people coming out of N.C. State, to get to the next level up.”