South Carolina Manufacturers Tap Young Talent With Successful Apprenticeship Program

Manufacturers are continually seeking new ways to bolster their ranks and fill the talent gap. While many already have relationships with trade schools for college-aged candidates, they’re gaining momentum to engage students in the K-12 system with hands-on opportunities.

Apprenticeship Carolina, a division of the SC Technical College System, is one of the fastest-growing apprenticeship programs in the U.S. The Charleston Regional Youth Apprenticeships program at Trident Technical College brings industrial apprenticeships and technical programs to high school juniors as young as 16 years old.

Melissa Stowasser, Dean and Director of High School Programs at Trident Technical College, said the school was approached by a German-based company in 2013 with the idea of starting an apprenticeship program for youth. They started the program in the fall of 2014 with six companies and 13 students.

Students go to high school in the mornings, take career-specific courses at the college in the afternoons, then work part-time. By the time students graduate high school, they have an industry credential from the U.S. Department of Labor and two years of work experience and field training.

“They’re basically working on their high school diploma and on a certificate in the post-secondary world at the same time. They’re being mentored on the job and being paid to learn,” Stowasser said.

“As industry professionals, it is our duty to explore new avenues to grow and train the next generation of skilled associates.”

More than 130 companies have currently registered apprenticeship programs at the school in nine industry sectors and 16 occupations. Bosch, which has manufactured automotive products in Charleston for more than 30 years, was a founding partner in the program. Karen Winningham, senior HR business partner for technical training at Bosch, said the program has worked well. Several of the company’s youth apprentices have even gone on to four-year colleges and are returning for internships. Others have moved into the adult program to study mechanatronics.

“Many have never considered a career in manufacturing. It’s no secret that the need for skilled talent is ever increasing. As industry professionals, it is our duty to explore new avenues to grow and train the next generation of skilled associates,” Winningham said.

When the program first started, the school took an active role in reaching out to students through school counselors and by advertising the program. As it grew, a bigger commitment from the local K-12 system sparked more interest among students in lower grades. Germany has been hailed around the globe for its youth vocational education and training system, and like many in the educational system, Stowasser believes it could serve as a model for helping bridge the skilled talent gap.

“Germany starts their apprenticeships early because they can mold them before they learn bad habits. We can teach them the right way before they get off track,” Stowasser says.

Getting students in the door early not only cultivates the labor and offers a viable full-time candidate when they’re ready, but it also enhances employee loyalty and the likelihood that they’ll stay with the company. The program currently has 100 students and has had 179 hired to date.

While such youth apprenticeships can work well, they’re not suited for every manufacturer. Flexibility is essential to meet the needs of students’ schedules and to be able to accommodate part-time workers. Manufacturers that try to view apprenticeships as “cheap labor” wont have a successful experience, Stowasser said. The most successful companies have advanced workers that are interested, available and excited about training and mentoring students.

“They have some ownership and real pride in watching the students develop and grow, and so the students feel more committed to them as well. They need to be committed to each other and take pride in that relationship,” Stowasser says.