High school students make transition from class to factory floor

SteelFab Orientation for Harding High Students

Several new hires for SteelFab Inc. were put through an orientation. Many of these new hires were students from Harding High School who came with a program that connects students with jobs at SteelFab. The new hires have jobs in painting, welding
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Several new hires for SteelFab Inc. were put through an orientation. Many of these new hires were students from Harding High School who came with a program that connects students with jobs at SteelFab. The new hires have jobs in painting, welding

They all waited in the lobby, looking a bit nervous. There were tattoos and baseball hats on a few, and some cracked their fingers impatiently.

The graduating high school students had gathered at a Charlotte steel fabrication company this week for an important rite of passage: orientation for their new jobs. Some had previous work experience, but for others it was their first real job.

SteelFab, located near Charlotte Douglas International Airport, was inducting its new employees on Thursday as part of a partnership with Harding University High School that helps local students find manufacturing jobs. The company has positions for welders, painters, machine operators, fitters and forklift drivers, among others.

Ra’Quon Carr, 19, heard of the jobs when company officials came to his high school to give an overview of careers in their industry. He first met with them at the school where he was given information about the opportunities and career paths available. He was later taken on a tour of the fabrication plant. One interview and an offer later, he had been hired as a painter at the company.

Anthony Castro Sanchez, 17, had a similar story. He applied because he wanted to be able to afford things on his own, he said. He eventually wants to go to college to be a stage set-up engineer.

“This job has good benefits, and it’s a good opportunity for us to learn useful skills. I want to make the best use of it,” he said.

Assistant Plant Manager Brian Schlenker said the partnership was a great way for the company to develop a well-trained workforce for the future. “We require new talent to keep up with the demands of the market,” he said.

SteelFab president R. Glenn Sherrill Jr. worked with MeckEd, a nonprofit advocacy organization in creating this school-to-work pipeline, the company said. MeckEd’s Career Pathways Program specializes in connecting students to workplace learning opportunities along with creating awareness about post-secondary education and training.

“We try to expose students to a wide variety of work-based learning and training opportunities. These could be anything from lectures from guest speakers and workshops to job shadowing, internships and apprenticeships,” said Melissa Verea, director of the Career Pathways program at MeckEd. The organization currently has similar arrangements with three other high schools.

Such partnerships between schools and industry provide a lifeline for young people looking for work in an economy where the unemployment rate for young high school graduates is almost 18 percent. While the current unemployment rate is a significant improvement from the peak of 28.1 percent in 2010, it is still above the pre-recession rate of 15.9 percent in 2007, according to the Economic Policy Institute. In comparison, the overall Charlotte-area unemployment rate was 4.8 percent this April.

“The Class of 2016 still faces real economic challenges, as evidenced by elevated levels of unemployment and underemployment, and a large share of graduates who still remain ‘idled’ by the economy,” a recent study by the Economic Policy Institute notes.

Still, the economy in Charlotte has improved considerably in the past couple of years, said Mark Vitner, senior economist at Wells Fargo Securities.

“I would think that this would be a very good year for high school graduates to enter the workforce,” he said. “Job openings hit a record high nationwide in April and job growth over the past year has been very strong in Charlotte and the surrounding area. Businesses are increasingly reporting difficulty hiring workers for both skilled and unskilled occupations.”

Back at the new hire orientation, the eight new hires, mostly students from the MeckEd program, sat around a table in an air-conditioned conference room at SteelFab’s headquarters. For the next two hours, they would be guided through paperwork, rules and guidelines. The orientation would conclude with a tour of the facilities and the fabrication plant. At the end of it all, they would emerge as full-fledged employees of SteelFab.

As Plant Manager Russell Barngrover entered the room, the room fell silent in anticipation.

“You have been given a golden egg and what you do with it is up to you,” Barngrover began.

Heads nodded in agreement as Barngrover gave opening remarks for about three minutes.

“Finally, congratulations on being here,” he said. “Hopefully sometime soon I’ll put my hood on and we’ll see if you can outweld me.”

One of the students spoke up: “I’ll take you up on that,” as the room broke into laughter.

Siddharth Vodnala: (573)-639-2458; Twitter: @siddharthvod