A New Way to Work in Wilkes County, NC

School apprenticeships in the region can benefit both your students and your organization.

By
Laura Hill
On Thursday, November 21, 2019 - 15:54
 Wilkesboro, NC Schools

As a West Wilkes High School student, Katie Bell liked graphic design and was thinking about a four-year college for more training. Hannah Billings, who was interested in technology subjects, knew early on in her time at North Wilkes High School that she wanted to work at a local cybersecurity firm, InfusionPoints, after graduating from college.

Now, thanks to an innovative apprenticeship program, both young women, May 2019 graduates, are well on their way to the careers they envisioned, already being paid to work and attend community college while being trained and mentored by working professionals.

The 2-year-old Wilkes apprenticeships, part of the ApprenticeshipNC program administered by the state community college system, are a win-win for employers and the community, too, as businesses can hire and train typically hard-to-find employees, keeping skilled workers in the Wilkes economy.

Wilkesboro, NC School Apprenticeships
Courtesy of Wilkes County Schools

“Apprenticeships are an opportunity for us to grow our own talent in Wilkes County while developing a highly trained pipeline that helps spur economic development locally,” says Wayne Shepherd, director of career and technical education (CTE) for Wilkes County Schools. “Business and industry has decreased in the area, and we see apprenticeships as an opportunity to fill those voids and train homegrown folks.”

Shepherd points out that apprenticeships are also a way for families to address student debt, a crippling problem for many college graduates who discover they cannot find a job even though they have amassed thousands of dollars of debt for their education.

“For many years, it’s been drilled into people’s brains that everybody needs a four-year college education,” Shepherd says. “But many highly skilled jobs don’t require that. We’re facing a cultural shift getting families to recognize that things have changed – that all work has value. To get students to entertain that idea of a different approach has been challenging.”

Matching Talent with Need

Shepherd and others recruit potential apprentices from local high schools, matching their interests and talents with the needs of local employers. Apprenticeships differ significantly from the more familiar internships. Employers who are interested in hiring and training apprentices must first register with ApprenticeshipNC. They then formulate details of the apprenticeship, from the length of the program to the wage that will be paid, courses required, terms of advancement, etc. Students are then interviewed and, in some cases, tested by employers who offer summertime pre-apprenticeships to the most outstanding candidates.

A contract is signed, spelling out the details of the apprenticeship. Upon satisfactory completion of the pre-apprenticeship, a full apprenticeship is offered at a wage that increases as training and coursework are completed.

Through the length of the apprenticeship, students attend Wilkes Community College, where their tuition is paid by the state, and where they may receive an added financial incentive by their employer for completion of individual courses.

Wilkesboro, NC School Programs
Courtesy of Wilkes County Schools

Incentivizing apprentices helps ensure their engagement with their employer, resulting in fewer turnovers and a healthier bottom line. Across the state, more than 91% of apprentices stay with their employer when the apprenticeship is finished.

“When we bring on employees who have worked other places, there is a big training phase when we are trying to rework their thinking,” says Brittany Daemer, quality assurance manager overseeing apprentices at InfusionPoints, where Bell is a graphic arts and marketing apprentice, and Billings is training in cybersecurity.

“The wonderful thing about youth opportunities like these is that we are able to cookie-cut the training and education for our future employees and also show students they don’t have to leave Wilkes to get a high-paying job.”

Win-Win

Return on investment, Daemer says, has been surprisingly quick – almost immediate, in fact – something she tries to impress on other potential apprentice employers. Other local companies participating include Interflex, Gardner Glass Products, ECMD, Wilkes Communications and Vulcan, which offer training in everything from cybersecurity to graphic design and marketing to industrial maintenance.

Bell and Billings are already finding their apprenticeships rewarding and see even bigger benefits ahead.

“This will really broaden my horizon in terms of how much knowledge we’re gaining here,” Billings says.

“Cybersecurity is very, very vast. InfusionPoints offers a lot of support in many different areas.”

Daemer says, “We really hit it out of the park with Hannah and Katie and with our new pre-apprentice. We like to hire locally, and we want to grow apprenticeships in Wilkes. We love it here, and we want it to grow.”

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Laura Hill is a former reporter/columnist for the Tennessean and a contributor to Journal Communications publications since 1996.