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Charlotte Boosts Worker Skills with Apprenticeships

Bill Koenig
By Bill Koenig Senior Editor, SME Media

The Charlotte, N.C., region has been successful in attracting internationally owned manufacturing concerns. Officials have also used a German-style apprenticeship program as a way to increase worker skill levels.

Central Piedmont Community College (CPCC) has a program called Apprenticeship 2000, which began in 1995.

The program requires 6,400 hours of learning manufacturing skills with 1,600 hours of college education. At the end of four years, a student earns a college degree and a journeyman designation. The new apprentices receive certificates from the state of North Carolina and the U.S. Department of Labor.

There are six employers involved, with five being European-owned. The program currently covers 38 apprentices. Participants are trained in such trades as CNC machinist, tool and die maker, mechatronics technician and injection molding technician.

“That student is in class and on the job,” said Chris Paynter, dean of STEM at CPCC.

All of this was happening as Charlotte was busy recruiting companies based outside the U.S. More than 3,000 manufacturers have operations in a 16-county region. They include Siemens, Daimler Trucks North America and Schaeffler Group USA. Overall, the Charlotte area has one of the largest concentrations of internationally owned companies between Washington, D.C. and Atlanta.

Paynter has been involved in the program since early this decade, when there were labor shortages in the Charlotte area. Companies “realized the traditional model of showing up at graduation” to recruit wasn’t working, he said. “They needed to make their investments earlier.”

One issue is getting manufacturers to buy into the idea.

“Apprenticeships are really employer-driven,” said Michelle Miller, executive director of corporate and workplace learning at CPCC. “They really have to invest in their workforces. It is a work in progress. A lot of it is educating employers about apprenticeship programs.”

Recruiting begins before high school graduation. Students in the program are sponsored by companies.
“Companies may use the term apprenticeship,” Miller said. “We find out what are the competencies they need to have. What is their level of commitment to doing a program?”

Apprentices “need to have someone designated as a mentor,” she added. “Otherwise it’s not going to be successful.”

The college works with high school counselors to find qualified candidates. Only high school juniors and seniors are considered. Criteria for consideration include completed courses in algebra and geometry, grade point average, and attendance.

On the manufacturing side, “We are always looking for new companies” to join the program, Paynter said.

College officials say the apprenticeship program is a long-term strategy.

“Companies need to understand apprenticeships are not a quick fix,” Miller said. “It takes time to get an employee trained up.”

Still, she said, for companies participating in the program, an apprentice gets “trained their way. It develops more loyalty.”

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