At BMW Manufacturing, Amanda Echols graduated with 27 others in the company’s scholars program this year, its third apprentice group. They were each paid $12 an hour at the start of the scholars program and have just started full-time jobs making $15.50 an hour.
The lone woman among the grads, Echols said she’s surprised more students aren’t lining up for apprenticeships like BMW’s scholars program.
“I don’t think they understand exactly what it is and how much they help you with your school and get you through education, and then you have a full-time job opportunity making really good money at a really good place,” Echols said. “I don’t think they understand that. Some people go to a four-year college and not even have a job lined up.
Echols, 22, is a Spartanburg Community College mechatronics graduate with a full-time job in automotive rework, which has her making quality checks on BMWs that come off the assembly line with some kind of glitch.
“I like fixing things now,” she said.
BMW Scholars exemplifies the growth of apprenticeships in South Carolina as the S.C. Technical College System’s Apprenticeship Carolina has become a model of helping businesses develop employee-recruiting programs.
Apprenticeship Carolina Director Brad Neese said growing from 90 companies and 777 apprentices in 2007 to having served more than 660 companies and 10,000 apprentices is due largely to having a diverse lineup of business types and the state’s manufacturing growth. The group operates with a $600,000 annual budget.
“Most states are on a downward trajectory with their apprenticeship programs,” Neese said.
“The other thing that makes us unique is the idea that we work outside of traditional sectors for apprenticeship programs. Typically when you talk to states about what is going on with apprenticeships, they are going to say about 90% of our apprentices are in the construction trade,” Neese said. “That’s the complete opposite in South Carolina. Only about 10% of ours are. So where we are doing apprenticeship programs are in advanced manufacturing, health care, IT, hospitality-tourism and, to a much lesser degree, in your traditional trades.”
Apprenticeship Carolina has grown into a global model, the director of the London-based International Skills Standards Organization said. Tom Bewick said during an Upstate stop that Apprenticeship Carolina benefits from the state having companies rooted in traditional European apprenticeships — BMW, Bosch and Michelin — but mostly due to its promoters knowing how to talk business.
Some of it is sweet talk. Apprenticeships are a tax benefit. The state provides an annual tax credit of $1,000 per apprentice for up to four years. For students, getting paid by a future employer while learning can beat the risk of a four-year degree not leading to a job.
Joy Tirado, who oversees the BMW plant’s scholars program, said they promote it at schools within a 50-mile radius, partly by making presentations to classes and at job fairs.
“It has caught on,” Tirado said. “There is interest in this type model for training.”
Tirado said students who are picked earn a part-time wage while the company is providing financial assistance for them to attend Spartanburg Community College, Greenville Technical College or Tri-County Technical College.
“The advantage is a more educated technical workforce,” she said.
Tirado said the apprentices get “much more highly technical jobs” than production employees hired otherwise.
“They have to know mechatronics and technology,” Tirado said. “To work on the production line itself you do not have to have that.”
BMW spokesman Steve Wilson said there are “1,400 robots here at the plant. We build 1,100 cars a day. So we need educated, trained people who can work on the robots, who can delve into the quality issue on the car.”
He said the plant has 8,000 employees and plans to add 800 by the end of 2016.
Tirado said the scholars program is based on “the German model.”
“Apprenticeships in Germany are quite extensive” and recruit younger teens, she said.
Tirado said Apprenticeship Carolina “supported us in a consulting capacity when we were creating the program.” She said the company did not register the program and is not taking the tax incentives but continues to have a “strong relationship with them to promote apprenticeships and in establishing support curriculum and training at the technical college level.
Testing her options
Echols said the path to her new job at BMW involved a lot of twists and turns from Broome High School. She dabbled in cosmetology at a vocational school, pursued a degree in elementary education and then tried radiology.
“Everybody had told me to take your basic classes because you will probably switch your major,” Echols said of her freshman and sophomore years. “At USC Upstate I basically took pretty much all of my English, math, science and social studies.
Staying flexible turned out to be good advice.
Uncomfortable with a medical terminology class in radiology and still undecided about a professional direction Echols heard about BMW Scholars. Echols recalled she was “actually substitute teaching” when her mother told her about it.
After sitting in on a scholars program presentation she went to Spartanburg Community College and changed her major to mechatronics.
“I took a safety class over the summer to see if I liked it, and I liked it,” she said.
Neese said some apprenticeship programs are being aligned with associate degrees, with “companies paying the college costs while students earn salaries for working part time.”
“People from all over the country, from all over the world are calling us to see how we are doing it,” he said.
Bewick led a group of businesspeople and educators from the U.K., New Zealand and South Africa on the World Class Apprenticeship Study Tour that also included stops in Washington, D.C., and Ottawa, Ontario. While in the Upstate recently the group attended apprenticeship and technical education discussions at Spartanburg Community College and got a look at the BMW Scholars program during a visit to the plant at Greer.
“A real success factor here is the fact you’ve got a group of people working in Apprenticeship Carolina who are business oriented,” Bewick said during a break in the fact-gathering tour. “They are not necessarily, though they may include, people who have an education background, or they have a background in curriculum but that’s not from the people I’ve met here and the conversations I’ve had. The business consultants that Apprenticeship Carolina employs talk the language of business. So it means when they are going into businesses here in the state they are not alienating the companies with the language of education, which let’s be honest, can be quite alienating for a lot of companies. They are talking the language of business in most cases. So that’s another really important takeaway for this tour group and that would be our assessment of why South Carolina has a particularly strong apprenticeship.”
Neese, a former small-business ombudsman at the S.C. Department of Commerce, said when someone “has completed these programs they receive a nationally recognized credential issued to them by the federal government.”
Tirado said the goal is to have 35 students in BMW’s next scholars group
“Over 100 will apply,” she said. “We try to bring the team in right when the school year starts. They apply online.”
Applicants must be high school graduates with at least a 2.8 grade point average
Echols said working summers with her father in his roofing and construction business taught her about hard work and helped her feel comfortable in a manufacturing environment.
“That’s why I wasn’t too scared going into it,” she said. “I knew if I could do that then I could do this.”
View article as it fully appears on GSAbusiness.com