This county hopes its apprenticeship program will convince the best and brightest to stay

“Skip the college debt. Fast-track your career today and get ahead of your peers.”

This is the message behind the Made in Henderson County Apprenticeship program, a new partnership between Blue Ridge Community College, Henderson County Public Schools, Henderson County Partnership for Economic Development, and several local companies.

The manufacturing apprenticeship program started in fall 2019 to address the shortage of manufacturing workers in the area.

“We experienced the last couple of years — due to the strong economy — that we cannot hire skilled labor … We just don’t find them,” said Carsten Erkel, vice president at Elkamet, a German manufacturing company with a site in Henderson County.

In the past 12 months, Erkel said, they have hired 147 people to fill just 10 additional roles at the end of the year. “This is what we’re facing,” he said.

The struggle to find qualified workers is not limited to Elkamet. Three other manufacturing companies in the area signed on participate in the inaugural year of the manufacturing apprenticeship program, and three more will join as the program enters its second year this fall.

“The success of our apprenticeship program is because it’s industry-led,” said Brittany Brady, president and CEO of the Henderson County Partnership for Economic Development. “Industry had the idea. Industry worked together to build everything from the curriculum to the structure of the program on a daily basis.”

Representatives from Blue Ridge Community College, business, and industry worked together to create the curriculum and schedule for the program. The first cohort of 20 students started in the fall of 2019 and will complete the program after three semesters. Apprentices take classes one day a week at the college and work the other four days at the companies.

You often hear “earn while you learn” in connection with apprenticeship programs across the state. At the Made in Henderson County program, companies pay apprentices both for the time they spend in class in addition to the time they work at the companies.

Apprentices start off earning $14 an hour, which increases to $17 an hour by the end of the program. In addition to a full-time job offer, apprentices finish the program with a mechatronics engineering certificate from Blue Ridge Community College. The program is funded largely by two grants which pay for the apprentices’ tuition, books, and fees.

Is it working so far? Partners at the manufacturing companies, education systems, and the apprentices all believe it is.

“We started out with nine apprentices last year, and seven are still here. And we feel really strong about those seven people,” Erkel said. Elkamet will continue participating in the apprenticeship program, with a new cohort of apprentices starting this fall.

“This is transformational for not only the industry, but for the students as well,” said Shanda Bedoian, director of corporate and customized training at Blue Ridge Community College. “The majority of the students in this first cohort just graduated high school. Many of them do not have the family structure, the support structure to guide them in life. This has provided that structure.”

Russell Hopkin, an apprentice at GF Linamar, was happy to find a path outside of a traditional four-year degree. “I knew I didn’t want to go to a four-year college. I knew that path wasn’t for me. I can actually apply the classes to what I do here at GF Linamar.”

Importantly, the Made in Henderson County apprenticeship program encourages young people to stay in the area by showing them they don’t have to leave to find a good job.

“We hope that this will cause some of our best and brightest graduates to stay in Henderson County and realize there is a viable future here for them,” said Wendy Frye, director of high schools, career and technical education, and virtual learning for Henderson County Public Schools.

The success of this program has drawn attention from other businesses in the area. The community college and K-12 system are working with industry to expand the apprenticeship program to include automotive, banking and finance, IT, masonry, and HVAC.

Made in Henderson County is just one example of the many apprenticeship programs that have popped up across the state in recent years. On March 5-6, ApprenticeshipNC is hosting its annual conference in Durham and bringing together industry, community college, and K-12 stakeholders to share lessons learned in creating successful apprenticeship programs. Stay tuned for coverage of the conference on EdNC.org and follow Molly Osborne on Twitter for live updates.

Molly Osborne is the Director of Policy for EducationNC and the N.C. Center for Public Policy Research.

Taylor Shain is a documentary filmmaker and video producer with EducationNC.

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