Apprenticeship Carolina: Building a Workforce to Meet Industry Needs

When you think of an apprenticeship, if you're like me, you may think of a young person in 17th century Europe being attached to a master craftsman to learn a craft or trade over a number of years until he or she is ready to be called a master.

Naturally, apprenticeship, like most things, has evolved quite a bit from that early concept, but the concept still lives on and is thriving here in the Upstate--partly because German manufacturers like BMW and ZF are well acquainted with the practice, but certainly it's not limited to German manufacturers.

For companies in the upstate, apprenticeship is attractive because it allows them to build their own workforce rather than hoping to find qualified candidates. It allows them to train employees for specific skills and technologies.

The National Apprenticeship Act in 1937 authorized the U.S. government to oversee registered apprenticeships and created federal standards for apprenticeship programs. According to Carla Whitlock, the Upstate regional representative of Apprenticeship Carolina, the three main requirements for the federal designation are 

  1. On-the-job training: skills and tasks that an employer wants them to know for a position

  2. Job-related education: This can include anything a technical college may offer or that a company offers internally, such as safety training, vendor training, OSHA training

  3. Scalable wage progression: within the apprenticeship program (anywhere from 1 to 4 years), there must be wage progression in order to show advancement.

The specifics of these components are left up to the individual company, with an apprenticeship program built and designed around an individual company's needs. The benefit for the apprentices is guaranteed employment if they continue through the program, along with having their continuing education paid for by the company. The company gains highly skilled and uniformly trained employees, but they also receive a $1000 tax credit per apprentice each year to offset the cost of training.

Apprenticeship Carolina is housed within the South Carolina technical college system with the aim of promoting economic development and workforce competitiveness in South Carolina. Whitlock's role is that of a liaison between the companies, the Upstate technical colleges (Greenville Tech, Piedmont Tech, Spartanburg Community College, and Tri-County Tech), and the federal Department of Labor, which certifies the programs. While some of the training can happen in-house, Whitlock says, 90% of the companies with apprenticeships use local technical colleges to provide both training and continuing education.

Rusty Denning, Associate VP for Economic Development & continuing education at Piedmont Technical College, offers ZF Transmissions in Gray Court as an example. "They have pulled apprentices into the program in two ways," he says. "Initially, they had selected employees internally that they wanted to receive training, and we worked with their schedules to meet their needs. But also, recruiters from ZF visited our mechatronics students and encouraged some of them to apply for apprenticeship jobs." Those students had to go through the ZF hiring process, and last year nine Piedmont Tech students met the hiring requirements. As long as they continue through and complete the program, they will be hired full time at the end of the four years of their apprenticeship.

ZF represents a typical apprenticeship program, in which the apprentices go to school approximately 20 hours a week and work 20 hours a week, with the employer picking up the tab for the educational expenses after any financial aid has been applied.

Another Upstate company using an apprenticeship program is Sage Automotive Interiors, which uses apprenticeship as an opportunity for promotion. Sage human resources manager Scott Coleman says, "We found out about apprenticeship program from Carla [Whitlock], and we talked it over and decided how many slots we would pay for. We were looking for people we wanted to grow, putting them in supervisory roles--shift leaders, shifts supervisors, We brought in candidates who wanted to be considered, had them write up why they wanted to be in the program, then selected two."

The apprentices, like the ones from ZF, go to school about 20 hours a week, then the other 20 hours they work their regular jobs, and they get paid as if they were at work for all 40 hours. Once they graduate, they will move into another position, and at that point the company will select two more candidates to work through the program.

Bringing the apprenticeship concept closer to the German model, where students enter into apprenticeships in high school, Piedmont Tech has begun a youth apprenticeship program. Currently, 12 students from Clinton and Laurens High Schools are taking mechatronics dual enrollment classes. Right now they are just taking classes, says Denning, but Piedmont Tech is working towards getting them into the apprenticeship program at ZF.

For more information, visit http://www.apprenticeshipcarolina.com/ or contact Carla Whitlock.

Sharon Purvis is a freelance writer and editor who makes her home with her husband in Duncan, South Carolina. You can find more of her work at SharonPurvisWrites.com.