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Apprenticeship program provides students with career options

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Students sign employment letters at the Youth Apprenticeship Signing Day in early August. Over 60 students entered apprenticeships this year in fields including automotive, culinary and health care. (Photo/Patrick Hoff)

Marquel Rolack-Smalls was one year into a machining apprenticeship with Venture Aerobearings when he was accepted to Clemson University to study mechanical engineering.

Rolack-Smalls had known before his apprenticeship began that he wanted to go to Clemson. But rather than leave his apprenticeship halfway, he deferred his Clemson enrollment so he could finish his work and graduate with an associate degree from Trident Technical College and a journeyman credit before transferring.

Rolack-Smalls is one of 113 students who have participated in the Charleston Regional Youth Apprenticeship Program, which matches interested high school students with apprenticeships in 16 occupational fields.

“There is a shortage in skilled labor, not only in Charleston but in the nation,” said Mitchell Harp, director of apprenticeship programs at Trident Technical College. “You can just Google ‘skills gap’ and you’re going to find that you have too many jobs available that require certain skills and not enough people that have those skills.”

Melissa Stowasser, director of high school programs at Trident Tech, said that for decades high school students have been told they need a four-year college degree, but that “times have changed. ... Sometimes those four-year degrees, although helpful, are not aligned with the industry’s jobs.” 

Apprenticeships, she said, are where the employment opportunities are.

The youth apprenticeship program in Charleston started when IFA Rotorion approached Trident Tech to begin a partnership in 2013. The school got more companies together and, with the Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce and the school districts, started laying the groundwork for a youth apprenticeship program. The program started in 2014 with 13 students working at six companies.

Harp said every apprenticeship needs to be registered with the U.S. Department of Labor to ensure that apprentices receive a journeyman credential upon completion.

“It’s more than just a resume,” Harp said. “I can walk into a company and show them my resume and they may be impressed, but they can’t prove that I had all that experience that I said I had. Well, with a journeyman credential, the company is the one that approves that they actually got that experience.”

Harp said apprenticeships reduce employee turnover because it provides a road map for the apprentice and gives them the chance to be mentored by an expert. Harp said, employers are required to provide apprentices with opportunities for growth and advancement in skills during their apprenticeship.

“If you talk to most adults ... when they graduated from college, they’ll tell you, ‘I just wish someone would give me an opportunity to prove myself,’” Harp said. “Well, an apprenticeship does that. It gets their foot in the door and allows them to prove that not only they’re a good person, they’re a good worker, and they’re willing to handle and take on multiple tasks.”

Harp said that employers typically have to spend much of the first year with an apprentice on training and instruction; after that, apprentices often end up making money for the employer.

“It’s tough sometimes for employers who are just struggling to find new people, but the employers who stick with it and give these kids or adults the opportunity to finish the apprenticeships, they’re more valuable employees,” he said.

‘A very unique collaborative effort’

The youth apprenticeship program is structured so students can balance high school classes, Trident Tech classes and employment at their apprenticeship. Typically, students will be full-time students and part-time employees while school is in session, then switch to full-time employees during school breaks.

The program is a partnership among Trident Tech, the Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce, Apprenticeship Carolina and the local school districts.

“It doesn’t belong to any of us — it belongs to the community as a whole,” Stowasser said.

The Chamber of Commerce pays Trident Tech tuition for youth apprentices, as well as any equipment they might need for Trident Tech classes through donations made to the program.

“If it wasn’t for all the partners, it wouldn’t work,” Harp said. “And everyone understands their role and is very supportive of it, and it’s a great program.”

Stowasser said no one is looking to take credit for the program — everyone involved in youth apprenticeships is focused on providing opportunities for businesses and students alike for the betterment of the community.

Stowasser and Harp said that when they give presentations to other places around the country about starting apprenticeship programs, it’s clear that other communities don’t have the same spirit of collaboration as Charleston.

“You can tell that they don’t have that kind of synergy in their region, and that they’re going to have to take some time to build that in order to move it forward,” Stowasser said. “But truly that is the success of it.”

The Labor Department is bringing industry leaders and education professionals from around the country to Charleston for a conference Sept. 13 and 14 showcasing how the Charleston model of youth apprenticeships can be replicated in different regions.

“This is a very unique collaborative effort that we want to see throughout the country, and I feel like this is the place where it has started,” said Amy Firestone, program analyst at the Labor Department’s Office of Apprenticeship.

Firestone, who spoke at Youth Apprentice Signing Day in early August, said the Department of Labor has also been working with Project Lead the Way to develop an engineering apprenticeship program.

Project Lead the Way, a nonprofit based in Indianapolis that provides science, technology, engineering and math curricula to schools, is in the early stages of setting up a pilot apprenticeship program for students in Charleston so it can begin next year.

Glade Montgomery, senior vice president of partnerships for Project Lead the Way, said he began talking to the Department of Labor last fall about apprenticeships, and the groups agreed that Project Lead the Way students would be good candidates for apprenticeships.

Montgomery said Charleston is a great place for the nonprofit to pilot their apprenticeship program because the region already has an established youth apprenticeship program and the Charleston County School District already has several high schools using Project Lead the Way programs.

“Everything was really in place and ready for us to try to expand apprenticeships in the Charleston area,” he said.

Montgomery said apprenticeships are valuable because they give students the chance to see how their coursework can be applied in the workforce.

“If they get an opportunity to go out at a business and really work with current professionals in a hands-on manner to see where they can actually apply ... their high school coursework, it just makes their educational experience so much richer,” he said.

Chad Vail, the work-based learning partnerships coordinator for Charleston County School District, said the school district wants to create a seamless path for students interested in apprenticeships.

Vail said the district has hired career specialists for middle schools in the district, which will help students look at what options they have in high school to set up a career trajectory.

It’s not about figuring out a life plan at 12 years old, though, Vail said.

“It’s about matching natural curiosity ... and an identified talent with an opportunity to learn more about that as they matriculate into high school and beyond,” Vail said.

Career specialists, who are separate from guidance counselors, will help students and families look at career options and assist them in choosing classes to provide a path for after high school, which could mean going to college, taking an internship or entering the youth apprenticeship program.

Students aren’t locked into the career path they set out on in middle school, though. Vail said the specialists will meet annually with families to review each student’s interests and make sure things are still aligned properly.

Harp said the youth apprenticeship program and workforce development programs aren’t about a quick fix to a workforce shortage or a skills gap — they are about building a long-term workforce.

“You’ve got to invest,” he said, adding that if Charleston keeps investing in apprentices for “the next 50 years, we’re going to be the envy of the nation.”

This story originally appeared in the Sept. 4, 2017, print edition of the Charleston Regional Business Journal.

Reach Patrick Hoff at 843-849-3144.

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