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CMS student apprenticeships may reflect education’s future

By springtime, a lot of high school seniors are cruising to the end of school. Maceo Rucker-Shivers can’t afford to join them.

His class work at Olympic’s math/science school and his after-school job at nearby Bosch Rexroth Corp. are preparing him for work as a machinist technician. His supervisors at the German company are watching to see whether his skills and work ethic justify paying his tuition at Central Piedmont Community College after graduation.

“You have to bring your A-game every day,” says Rucker-Shivers.

His career-focused studies at Olympic High led him to discover a passion for building precision manufacturing equipment. “Machines excite me. They really do,” he says, beaming.

Rucker-Shivers may represent the future of public education, in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools and around the country.

It’s a future with closer links among K-12 schools, community colleges and private employers, influenced by the European apprenticeship model. It’s one where the “college for all” mantra yields to a recognition that for many students, training for skilled jobs is more meaningful than a four-year degree. And it’s one where promising students can start earning right away – sometimes while they’re in high school – rather than taking on college debt.

Pathways to Prosperity,” a 2011 report from the Harvard Graduate School of Education, spelled out the challenge: America’s current approach to academics is not only failing the students who drop out of high school. Almost half the students who graduate and enroll in a four-year college leave without a diploma, the report notes. For minority and low-income students, even fewer finish college.

The recommended solution: Multiple pathways to adulthood, with employers playing a greater role in shaping those paths. In European vocational systems, the report says, employers and educators not only develop the next generation of workers, they also help young people transition to adulthood.

CMS Superintendent Heath Morrison and CPCC President Tony Zeiss are both pushing this model. The 2013-14 CMS budget calls for creating career-tech hubs at traditional high schools and launching new magnets focused on internships and career skills.

Olympic as matchmaker

Olympic, one of the models for CMS, got a head start when the southwest Charlotte school split into five career-themed academies in 2006. Business partnerships, career exploration and real-life projects were central to the new approach.

“All that testing stuff and all that rote memorization stuff is not going to help you in the real world,” says career development coordinator Michael Realon. Before coming to Olympic to teach business, economics and math, he worked for trade associations, including the Charlotte Apparel Mart. He now acts as Olympic’s liaison to the business community.

Realon (pronounced Ray-lon) says Olympic helps students explore career prospects, starting with an online assessment of their skills and interests, which gives them a list of their 20 best career “matches.”

“We tell them it’s like eHarmony. It’s going to connect you to your soul mate career that will make you happy,” Realon said. Rucker-Shivers knew he liked hands-on work, and he took part in one of Olympic’s most high-profile projects: Building Habitat houses. He took classes in drafting, carpentry, wood shop and principles of engineering.

Opening eyes

Three of Olympic’s five small schools have career academies, with advisers from private industry helping educators create classes to prepare students for jobs. At the math/science school, which Rucker-Shivers attends, the themes are energy and engineering, with guidance coming from companies such as Duke Energy, Piedmont Natural Gas and Siemens Energy.

Last summer, Rucker-Shivers landed a paid internship with Siemens, a German company. He worked three days a week, shadowing machinists and engineers, and spent two days studying mechatronics at CPCC. It opened his eyes to a world of high-tech work.

“Siemens is three minutes from my house and I didn’t know it existed,” Rucker-Shivers said. “All these opportunities are here.”

Siemens has a tradition of apprenticeship, paying young people for a combination of classroom work and on-the-job training. Those opportunities are generally offered to high school graduates, but a few high school students now get a chance.

Realon says students who get apprenticeships earn $9 to $10 an hour, including the time they spend finishing high school and attending CPCC.

Out of 10 summer interns, Rucker-Shivers says, five were offered apprenticeships. He wasn’t among them. Another lesson learned: “You’re not a kid anymore. You’re not just there to do what you’re told.” You have to take initiative, he said, and solve problems to make the grade.

Another chance

In January, Bosch Rexroth started hiring high school interns in the plant that makes manufacturing equipment. Rucker-Shivers was chosen, along with Hopewell High senior Carla Bailey.

The partnership isn’t entirely altruistic. Technical machinists must know math and physics, but textbook knowledge isn’t enough. It’s tough to find workers who can jump in. In Germany – and even at the Bosch plant in Greenville, S.C. – apprenticeships are an established way to recruit talent.

“The skills we need have been lost,” said Mark Rohlinger, who works in technical plant management in Charlotte. “The hands-on, practical stuff really makes or breaks people here.”

Rucker-Shivers and Bailey have been calibrating machines and writing up instructions for various jobs. The internship covers the rest of the school year and the summer. Rucker-Shivers’ took it with the hope of earning a full-fledged apprenticeship, with paid tuition and continued on-site training. Instead of having to borrow for a traditional college education – “student loans are a killer” – he’d get a free education and near-certain employment.

Bosch staff won’t discuss pay, but Realon says a national report shows machinist technicians can earn $60,000 to $100,000 a year.

Jobs of tomorrow

Educators’ enthusiasm about high-tech career training is tempered by one reality: Creating labs at schools is expensive. That’s another benefit of partnerships. CMS may not be able to afford to create machine shops at high schools, but students can go to real workplaces.

And those workplaces change and adapt at a real-world pace. As Morrison is fond of noting, students must prepare for jobs that don’t yet exist.

Olympic isn’t the only school tackling the challenge. Students from several schools are working in paid internships or apprenticeships, though Chancey says Olympic’s location near such European-owned companies as Siemens and Bosch is an advantage.

Hopewell, Vance, Mallard Creek and Berry high schools have students graduating in June from the CMS Academy of Engineering, which requires extensive internships.

MeckEd, a nonprofit group that normally focuses on education and advocacy, saw career-track training as such an urgent need that it recently launched Career Pathways, a program to link students at Vance and Harding high schools to job opportunities in partnership with CPCC and businesses.

Meanwhile, Rucker-Shivers recently got good news about his own economic future.

His work paid off: He got an apprenticeship with Bosch.

Helms: 704-358-5033; Twitter @anndosshelms
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