Federal funding propels apprentice program in tech schools

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Hands-on skill training and education in the Apprenticeship Carolina program is a daily part of the curriculum at the Technical College of the Lowcountry. PHOTO COURTESY TECHNICAL COLLEGE OF THE LOWCOUNTRY

What a difference 10 years can make when a start-up apprenticeship program with unlimited potential seizes the opportunity to grow.

In 2007, South Carolina had 777 apprentices under the wings of 90 employers. That's not exactly a robust number, considering that Florida had 18,000 and North Carolina 16,000.

That has changed. The South Carolina Chamber of Commerce conducted a study in the mid-2000s that concluded "we were woefully behind our other states as far as apprenticeships ... that was the impetus for the founding of Apprenticeship Carolina," said Kelly Steinhilper, vice president of communications for the organization that was founded in 2007.

"Today we have 918 companies that are participating and a little over 26,000 apprentices," she said.

Seed funding from the state 10 years ago for Apprenticeship Carolina put $500,000 into its coffers.

"We worked on a shoe-string budget" for eight years, Steinhilper said, until the U.S. Department of Labor granted $5 million in 2015 for a five-year plan to expand the program through outreach, webinars and other assorted marketing initiatives.

Simply put, employers sign up, apprentices sign up and they match up at no expense to either party. Employers grow their workforce, and apprentices continue working at the company after they've earned their certification.

"We provide outreach to all the companies in the state to give them information and to walk them through the process of starting to register apprenticeships," Steinhilper said. "All of our services are free of charge."

Once applicants are handpicked by companies, they become staff employees, receive job-related education, on-the-job mentoring and a scalable wage. The more skilled they are, the more they make.

"They earn as they learn," Steinhilper said. Typically, apprentices will study and work for two years and then receive a national certification for their efforts. The apprentices range in age from 18 to 40 or older.

South Carolina is host to 16 two-year technical colleges. The Technical College of the Lowcountry serves four counties in the southern part of the state, including Beaufort, where 2,232 students attended school at the New River campus in Bluffton last fall.

Nearly half of the student body were minorities, 69 percent were women, and the average student age was 27.

Leigh Copeland, assistant vice president for marketing and public relations at TCL, said."I think part of the challenge is how we can make the program work for hospitality, tourism and those types of programs for small businesses."

Course studies used to be limited to construction, carpentry, welding and a handful of others. Not anymore. Today's apprentices can engage in tourism, energy, advance manufacturing, information technology, transportation logistics and healthcare.

Hargray, CVS pharmacies, Carolina Air and the Inn at Palmetto Bluff are among the local businesses that participate in the apprenticeship program.

All of today's adult apprentices are in good company historically. Elvis was an apprentice electrician, Ben Franklin studied printing. Former apprentices include Leonardo da Vinci (painting), Gordon Ramsey (catering), Ozzy Osbourne of Black Sabbath (plumber) and Henry Ford (machinist).

Youth programs also are part of the program. Statewide, 178 companies partner with junior and senior high school students who go to school part-time, work part-time, earn their diploma and then transition to full-time employment after graduation.

Dean Rowland is a veteran senior editor and freelance writer.

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