On the shop floor at Grob Systems in Bluffton, Alex Shaw tells me there’s one thing he loves to do.
“Farm,” he said. “If I’m not here, I’m on the farm.”
But on this recent morning, the soft spoken 20-year-old is operating a CNC machine–CNC stands for “computer numerical control.
Over the shop’s constant low hum, he said he loves farming so much that he really wanted to go to college to study agricultural business. But the thought of taking out loans to pay for college made him nervous, so instead, he went a different route, and entered Grob’s apprenticeship program.
“College is good, but it’s also not for everyone,” Shaw said. “Especially a four year college. You can walk out of a four year college and not find a job, and here you’re not in debt, and you have a job.”
Apprenticeship programs, like the one Shaw has enrolled in, have strong international ties. In many countries, programs are looked at as an essential pipeline for building a skilled workforce.
It’s typically referred to as earning and learning– students get paid while they learn a skill. Here in the United States, apprenticeships are far less prevalent, and have in fact declined in recent years.
But recently they’ve been getting some renewed attention, partially to deliver skills like those Shaw’s honing with his job. The ability to work with CNC machines is among the most highly sought after skills in manufacturing.
As an apprentice, Shaw is a full time employee and collects a 40-hour a week paycheck. He works at the plant three days a week and spends the other two days taking classes at Rhodes State College, which is paid for by Grob. At the end of the program he’ll have earned an associate’s degree in manufacturing engineering.
Grob’s training supervisor, Mike Hawk, thinks it’s a pretty attractive deal.
“As an apprentice, you don’t start out making a lot of money, “ Hawk said. “But there’s an option, if you work hard, you can make a lot of money.”
Aside from getting a free degree, health benefits, and a daily lunch, Hawk says his apprentices are earning a competitive wage.
They start out at $8.50 an hour during their first year, and work their way up to an hourly rate of $12.50.
If they’re hired on full time–and Hawk says most are–they earn around $17 an hour.
On the day I visited Grob, Hawk was proud to show me around. The shop was clean, and while the machines were loud, they weren’t as loud as I thought they’d be.
“It’s not the apprenticeship that your father or grandfather may have went through,” Hawk said.
Apprenticeships in the U.S. have traditionally been connected to the building and construction trades, but that’s beginning to change, Margo Meyer tells me as we sit in a Rhodes State lobby. She’s director for advanced manufacturing initiatives at the college. And in that role she says she’s seeing more businesses, especially in the manufacturing field, wanting to create apprenticeship programs like Grob’s. But that step takes a big commitment from employers who want to get in and grow their own.
“Not only is it expensive, it takes a significant amount of time,” Meyer said. “Four years is a long time until you actually get somebody on the other end.”
And it’s also pretty tough to make manufacturing look appealing to today’s high schoolers, not to mention their parents and guidance counselors.
“How many high school counselors do you know that have ever been inside of manufacturing,” Meyer said. “So when they start to advise their students about possible career routes, they have a perception that manufacturing is hot, and dirty, and something manufacturing isn’t any more.”
Apprenticeships in this country have been declining – from nearly half a million in 2003, to under 300,000 in 2013, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. President Obama is looking to boost that number back up. He recently announced $600 million in competitive grant funding for new training and apprenticeship programs.