A dozen high school seniors got more than a resume boost by completing a pre-apprenticeship program through Caterpillar Inc.’s assembly plant in Clayton.
They also got a paycheck and hands-on experience on the production line.
After taking community college courses during their junior year, the students from Johnston and Wake counties worked part time for Caterpillar until graduating from the program on Thursday.
Many of the students have already applied to continue working for the company after finishing high school.
Adam Brooks, a senior at Corinth-Holders High School in Wendell, had experience working on cars before applying to the program. But that didn’t compare to the small-wheel loaders that Caterpillar assembles in Clayton.
“Nothing is like building a tractor,” Brooks said. “That’s a crazy thing to say you can do in high school.”
Caterpillar created the program with the N.C. Department of Commerce, which works with private companies and schools across the state to develop apprenticeships. The first graduating class included students from four Johnston County high schools and Fuquay-Varina High School in Wake County.
“Pipeline of talent”
While the students benefit from on-the-job experience and college-level courses, Caterpillar ends up with a pool of potential, trained employees.
Jamie Ramsey, a Caterpillar training consultant who helped coordinate the pre-apprenticeship program, said there’s truth to the “skills gap” narrative that’s often attached to the manufacturing industry. Caterpillar is not alone in that, Ramsey said, which makes the program very important.
“It’s a pipeline of talent,” he said.
Students apply to the program during their junior year and go through the same interview process that a regular job-seeker would.
After being accepted, students take courses in industrial safety and hydraulics during the spring semester of their junior year at Johnston Community College. They get additional training at JCC between junior and senior year and also start working at Caterpillar.
During senior year, students split time between their high school courses, more JCC classes and work at Caterpillar four days a week.
Each student is assigned a mentor at the assembly plant – an experienced product assembler who shows them the ropes.
And other than crane operations, students learn and perform many of the same tasks full-time employees do. Many times, that means putting together components that form the small-wheel loaders, or heavy-equipment machines typically used to move or load materials.
Kaylem Jones, a graduate from the inaugural class, said he wasn’t especially interested in manufacturing before applying to the program but “took a chance” that has since paid off.
“Doing something where you actually see your work put out in the field, how everything happens and how big of a role you play, it’s really enlightening,” said Jones, a senior at North Johnston High.
About half of the pre-apprenticeship program graduates, including Jones and Brooks, have applied to continue working at Caterpillar. The others want to pursue a four-year degree in college.
Parents, Caterpillar employees and Department of Commerce officials lauded the students’ achievements at a graduation ceremony Thursday evening in Clayton.
Will Collins, the executive director of the Department of Commerce’s N.C. Works, commended the students for making a “mature decision,” a commitment many people often refuse to make.
Through N.C. Works, the Department of Commerce manages 32 apprenticeship programs for private companies and schools across the state, 18 of which are pre-apprenticeships.
“Sometimes people say, ‘Here are our future leaders,’” Collins said. “I disagree; these are our leaders today. These young men are mentors, decision-makers and valued members of the community already.”
Caterpillar has already recruited students for its 2016 pre-apprenticeship class. They just completed their first semester at JCC.
Dunn: 919-553-7234, Ext. 104.