US Labor Secretary touts apprenticeships in Cary

U.S. Labor Secretary Thomas Perez
U.S. Labor Secretary Thomas Perez

U.S. Labor Secretary Thomas Perez visited a Cary manufacturer Wednesday to publicize corporate apprenticeship programs that recall the way businesses invested in their employees a half-century ago.

Perez spent about two hours at Bühler Aeroglide, talking to graying executives and young apprentices from North Carolina companies that sponsor such programs. In addition to offering part-time jobs, apprenticeship programs typically pay for career training at community colleges and come with a guaranteed job offer.

Perez was also here to promote his agency’s $100 million grant program that’s accepting applications through April 30. The program will pay $2.5 million to $5 million to businesses and organizations that devise the most effective apprenticeship programs.

“As a nation, over the course of decades, to our detriment, we have devalued apprenticeship,” Perez said after his site tour. “I refer to apprenticeship as the other college, except without the debt.”

Bühler, a manufacturer of industrial dryers, launched its program last year and employs three teenage apprentices who work part-time for $9 an hour while they complete their senior year in high school. They will be paid $13.50 an hour in year four, and at the end of program the trio has jobs awaiting them with starting salaries of $34,000.

The apprenticeship graduates are not required to take the job if they think they can find a better offer. But most stay with the company that trained them, executives said.

“If someone has great skills, we pay according to the market,” said company President Hans-Joerg Ill. “We are convinced that learning a profession takes a certain amount of time.”

North Carolina has had a statewide apprenticeship program since 1939, supporting 526 companies that employ about 3,500 apprentices today. Participants include Duke Energy, Time Warner Cable, Caterpillar and GlaxoSmithKline, said Kathryn Castelloes, Director of Apprenticeship with the Department of Commerce.

There’s an apprenticeship program for prison inmates who are preparing for life after release, and for military personnel training to become corrections officers.

Apprenticeships are sometimes seen as the blue-collar pathway for high schoolers who aren’t ready for college or not cut out for a suit-and-tie career track. But the modern-day apprenticeship program is designed for elite students.

For consideration as apprentices, companies in the Triangle and Charlotte areas require a minimum GPA of 2.8 and courses in algebra, geometry, physics and drafting. The programs are open to aspiring welders, machinists, fabricators, technicians, electricians and tool-and-die makers.

Bühler apprentices start out doing sheetmetal work – welding, bending and cutting – and by their fourth year advance to machine assembly and installation, Ill said. The Swiss company wants to expand its North Carolina program for designers, engineers and other front-office functions.

Bühler’s program selected three apprentices from an original field of some 60 students who expressed interest. The selection process included interviews and a six-week pre-apprenticeship trial period. The company, which employs 210 people in Cary, will invest about $150,000 in each apprentice over four years.

“It’s very competitive,” said Walter Siegenthaler, executive vice president at Max Daetwyler Corp. “It’s a $150,000 scholarship, basically.”

Daetwyler, an equipment manufacturer in Huntersville with 100 employees, started its apprenticeship program in 1996 and currently employs six apprentices.

Luke Fouts, one of Bühler’s apprentices, started out in the stockroom, where he put in 260 hours receiving, inputting, cataloging and packaging. A senior at the Franklin Academy charter school in Wake Forest, Fouts has since rotated to stainless-steel welding and will next be taking a baseline test to assess his proficiency.

Fouts sees welding as a bridge, not a final destination. His long-term plan, after completing his internship, is to get a four-year degree in engineering or management from N.C. State University. He hopes to finish college while working at Bühler.

“One thing about our CEO, he wants us to be well-rounded,” Fouts said. “Here I only learn how to weld. Where am I going to go with that?”