They’re getting a head start on high-tech careers

Owen Sims is still in high school, but the 17-year-old is already headed toward a well-paying career at a high-tech manufacturer.

The home-schooled senior from Concord works a few hours a day, five days a week at Max Daetwyler Corp., a custom machine maker in Huntersville. Within a few years, he’ll have learned and worked in every department at the company.

He does it as part of the Apprenticeship 2000, a program of five Charlotte-area manufacturers that trains students on the job, pays for their college and guarantees them work after graduation. The program is marking its 20th anniversary this year.

Such programs have been around for years, but have become more vital as manufacturing and other industries become more high-tech. So much so that President Barack Obama announced $175 million this fall in apprenticeship grants across the country.

“This is the only way to find the skilled labor we need,” said Mike Birkle, president of Pfaff Molds in Charlotte, which has 11 apprentices on its 30-person staff.

“The average age of a U.S. mold maker is 58. You can’t find them anymore, and in seven years half of them will retire.”

Since 1995, 136 people have graduated from Apprenticeship 2000 and 54 more apprentices are currently in the program. Other partners include Ameritech Die & Mold in Mooresville and Blum Inc. in eastern Lincoln County, which makes hardware for cabinets, and machine tool maker Chiron America in Charlotte.

It costs the companies $160,000 per apprentice over the four years of training. The apprentices earn $10 an hour, and those who complete the program are guaranteed jobs with $36,400 salaries, full benefits and 401Ks.

When students such as Sims graduate high school, the companies cover their education at Central Piedmont Community College in Charlotte. The students earn two-year associate degrees in mechatronics, which covers mechanical, computer, electrical and other engineering fields.

“My parents love that part of it,” Sims said with a smile at Max Daetwyler recently.

Learning on the job

Sims is one of seven apprentices among the 93 employees at Max Daetwyler. Several more workers are graduates of the program. He said he learned about the program by reading a newspaper article last year.

He arrives at Max Daetwyler’s 72,000-square-foot plant on Reese Boulevard at 7 a.m. during the week.

On a recent day, he operated a machine that produces “doctor blades” – “sophisticated Squeegees” that wipe off excess ink – for the printing industry.

Dressed in a blue work uniform, baseball cap and steel-toed safety shoes, he held each blade that came out of the machine to inspect its quality.

A trained worker watched over him as Sims operated the machine. It was quiet inside the area, with only about five or six other workers in the area.

“As he gets more experienced, they can let him (on his own) more and more,” said Walter Siegenthaler, Max Daetwyler’s executive vice president.

Sims will eventually work in all departments at Max Daetwyler, including machining, assembly, electronics and engineering.

Once he completes the program, he’ll get to choose which job he likes the most.

“We’re looking for students who like to work with their hands,” said Bob Romanelli, Max Daetwyler’s apprenticeship program coordinator.

A national priority

Siegenthaler heads the N.C. Department of Commerce’s Apprenticeship Advisory Council and appeared at two White House gatherings this year on the need for more training of young workers for high-tech manufacturing jobs.

Since a call to action by Obama in his 2014 State of the Union, the U.S. has added more than 55,000 apprenticeship opportunities, the U.S. Department of Labor announced in September. That’s the largest increase in nearly a decade, the department said.

In September, Obama announced $175 million in American Apprenticeship Grants to train and hire more than 34,000 apprentices in high-growth and high-tech industries, including health care, IT and advanced manufacturing over the next five years.

The president cited a study stating that workers who complete an on-the-job apprenticeship earn $300,000 more over their lifetimes than their peers who didn’t go through an apprenticeship.

“Upgrading your skills pays off,” he said.

He said other countries such as England and Germany have more apprentices per capita, “giving them a leg up when it comes to filling jobs in the future.”

The Charlotte-area apprenticeship program was modeled after apprenticeship systems in Switzerland, Austria and Germany, Siegenthaler said. Max Daetwyler is based in Switzerland. Huntersville is its only location in the United States.

The Apprenticeship 2000 program has drawn the attention of national figures such as U.S. Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez, who toured Ameritech Die & Mold this year. The Swiss Broadcasting Corp. visited Daetwyler for a feature on Apprenticeship 2000.

Other apprenticeship programs have since sprouted in North Carolina, including Gaston College’s Apprenticeship 321. The program started this fall with such companies as Wix Filters, Firestone Fibers & Textiles and Daimler Trucks North America.

The goals of each program are essentially the same: To find, train and keep people like Sims and D.J. Trojanowski.

Trojanowski, a 24-year-old in Statesville, graduated from Apprenticeship 2000 three years ago.

Without the training program, Trojanowski said, “I’d probably still be trying to make ends meet, living at home.”

Now, he’s a lead machinist at Daetwyler.

“They’d have to put me out with a big stick to leave,” he said. “I’m happy with the position I’m in. There’s no need for me to go anywhere else.”

Joe Marusak: 704-358-5067, @jmarusak