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Greenville Business Magazine

Apprenticeships: Pathway to Success Growing in State

Aug 17, 2022 02:54PM ● By Amy Bonesteel

By Amy Bonesteel

Across the state, thousands of high school juniors and seniors challenge themselves with SATs, Advanced Placement classes, and more with the struggle to gain acceptance into a college or university.

But there’s another route to career success, and more are discovering apprenticeships in South Carolina’s manufacturing, distribution or other businesses that offer the training, speedy advancement, and financial compensation they are looking for. 

From March 2020 to January of 2021, nearly 450 apprenticeship occupations were developed through the support of Apprenticeship Carolina, a state agency that partners with South Carolina’s community college system and the U.S. Department of Labor Apprenticeship Program to support students (many starting at age 16) and employers. 

“Our bread and butter is helping (employers) design their apprenticeship program,” says Apprenticeship Carolina’s Amy Firestone, Ph.D., who serves as vice president of the Division of Apprenticeship Carolina SC Technical College System. “We are starting to work more in the implementation side,” she notes, and they are well-equipped with “about $20 million” from the Department of Labor to support businesses. 

Being regulated by the government protects the students, making sure safety protocols are in place, explains Firestone, and employers must pay apprentices minimum wage to start. “This is an official program,” she says. “You are coming out as an HVAC technician or a chef,” she offers by way of examples. “It’s not an internship.”  

Apprentices are often able to earn college degrees while working, and tuition is paid for by employers or the state. Twenty-year-old Alana Phifer, an apprentice for close to two years with digital printer/uniform/sign-maker company bFIVE40 recently completed a digital arts/associate in applied science degree from Horry-Georgetown Technical College while working from home as a graphic designer. 

Mainly working from email, Phifer creates graphics based on design briefs that are then turned into print-ready art for seamstresses to cut and sew. She goes into the office several times a month to meet with production managers.

“I would 100 percent recommend this program,” she says. “Getting that work experience is something that you’ll never get in a classroom.” She hopes to own her own production and design business someday, and says further degrees might be in her future.

An apprenticeship can be a launching pad for highly motivated students like Phifer and Karson King, who started as an apprentice with Rolls Royce/MTU-solutions in Graniteville four years ago learning how to build engines. 

A junior in high school and a gifted football player when he saw an apprenticeship video, King says “I saw this as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” and convinced his parents of the merits. “The more knowledge you get the more valuable you are,” he says in a video about the program. “You always have that skill to fall back on.” 

Today King owns his home, boat and a landscaping business he was able to start with his pay. A CNC Machine Operator with MTU, he also earned an associate’s degree in industrial maintenance from Aiken Technical College and is earning a bachelor’s degree in quality systems – all before the age of 22.

“The first question they ask is, ‘How much money can they make’,” says Paul Wiley, apprenticeship coordinator and senior supervisor for engine manufacturer MTU-Solutions, where nine apprentices are currently employed.

Visiting seven high schools a year building the program, Wiley has worked with the Aiken County Career and Technical Center to help prepare the students. At the end of the program the company usually hires the apprentices, he says, “but if we don’t take them, other local companies are happy to hire them.”  

Supporting businesses, local students

Warren Snead, HR manager at Spartanburg’s Cooper Standard plant (where automotive sealing systems are produced) has been involved with the apprenticeship program for over 30 years, 15 of those at Cooper Standard. He says the partnership with Apprenticeship Carolina has “brought this to a whole new level.”

“They have created boilerplate programs that a company can take and modify to fit their company’s requirements,” he says. “You have a step-by-step guide.”

An example at Cooper Standard is an apprenticeship class for injection molding in partnership with Spartanburg Community College with 15 students.

“Our instructor is an engineer here and it is funded through grant money from Apprenticeship Carolina,” he notes. “They (students) are taking accredited classes here at the plant – the labs are here as well.” 

Todd Mankin, training coordinator for Swiss Krono in Barnwell, says connecting with area career centers and schools is key. With the help of Apprenticeship Carolina, “We are building a workforce, reaching out further into the community,” he notes. “We keep talent local – when they graduate, we offer them the job.” With a great starting pay (well over the minimum wage) and full benefits for high school graduates, the manufacturing roles appeal to students who want to remain local and near family. 

Cultural shift

Apprentice programs have been in place in European countries for centuries, but in the U.S., many manufacturers find they must work to convince students (and often parents) that a work/academic path that doesn’t include a typical university can lead to success. 

“A four-year college education is not for everyone,” says Kenny Parker, college recruiting and apprenticeship manager for industrial machinery and textile manufacturer Milliken & Company in Spartanburg. “These jobs are in demand – you have a skill you can utilize and someone will pay you well.”

Introducing students to the program at a younger age has been successful, many recruiters note, and South Carolina is quickly catching up to neighboring states, with age 16 and older youth apprenticeship programs targeting high school juniors and seniors (and even middle schoolers in some areas).

“The challenge has been that (S.C.) high schools were not set up for the program,” says Rosemary Vella, manager of technical training for Schaeffler Group USA Inc. in Fort Mill. The company has locations in Cheraw and Fort Mill, and offers apprentice trades of tool and die manufacturing, electrical, and other manufacturing careers.

In Cheraw, the company has around 40 students and will be adding even more later this year, says Vella. Once the students learn a skill set like electrical or tool and die operating and grow into new roles, “they get very excited about it,” she notes. Often it is harder to convince parents about the career path. “They don’t see the long-term benefit.” 

Vella points to company perks like matching 401(k) contributions, health care, and free tuition at South Carolina’s technical schools as some of the selling points. 

Tire manufacturer Michelin in Greenville has one of the longest-standing apprentice programs in the state at 45 years. Over 1,500 Tech Scholar Apprentices have transitioned into full-time roles with the company, according to Robin Blackburn, TEC AP external training manager. The company added the Youth Apprenticeship Program four years ago, offering a “pathway to the other program once they complete a two-year (fully funded) college degree,” she notes.

“High school career centers have elevated the program,” says Blackburn, especially in the greater Upstate area. Students began requesting courses in topics like automotive mechatronics and soon found that “in some of the programs they have a wait list,” she adds. 

“It’s really a great opportunity, to be mentored while they go to high school and build competency in a skill,” says Blackburn. “All of our youth employees are direct employees of Michelin.”    

Chemical giant BASF is another long-standing believer in apprenticeships, offering work/training programs around the globe for over 100 years. Earlier this year they announced they were expanding their North American Apprenticeship Development Program (NAADP) and will now have close to 100 spots at 20 manufacturing locations – including at their plant in White Stone.   

Looking forward, Apprenticeship Carolina’s Firestone says they would like to see more information technology (IT) and cybersecurity apprenticeships as those fields have grown significantly. Construction is another booming industry without as many apprentices as other industries in the state, she adds. “We need to get them on board.”