Governor salutes Caterpillar apprenticeship grads

May. 15, 2014 @ 07:44 PM

Gov. Pat McCrory was in town Thursday night, along with the leaders of the state's community college and public school systems, to congratulate a handful of local high school students.

The eight teenagers who were honored are the first graduating class from an apprenticeship program between Caterpillar, Lee County Schools and Central Carolina Community College. The ceremony was held at the Caterpillar plant in the Lee County Industrial Park.

"Our country was made by men and women like this group to my left," the governor said, pointing to the grads. "People who can make things."

The graduates make up fewer than half of the 17 students who began the program in 2012, but the students who did stick with it were able to train at CCCC's welding lab for free, earning official certification, as well as working with Caterpillar directly to learn about workplace safety and best practices.

Donnie Oldham, chairman of the board of directors for the Lee County Economic Development Corporation, called the apprenticeship program "a really, really big deal" and said he's glad to see one of the county's largest employers working with the schools and CCCC.

"It's a great program," he said. "You guys are lucky to be part of the first class."

In the summers, students in the program are guaranteed paid internships with Caterpillar, so now all of the graduates have both academic credentials and real-world experience in a field where average pay is around double the minimum wage. They also have a "preferred employment opportunity" at Caterpillar anytime the company is hiring.

For comparison, many of their fellow high school classmates will go into retail, the most common job in America. A typical retail salesperson makes about $25,000 a year; a typical welder makes about $39,000 a year. McCrory said blue collar jobs are what this country was built on, and that such jobs need to return to the levels of previous decades.

"If we're going to rebound in this economy, ... we can't live off the service industry alone," McCrory said. "We can't live off government jobs alone."

William Cobey, chairman of the State Board of Education, said at the graduation that he also has served as a coach and athletic director, and that the apprenticeship program is a good example of that all-important ingredient — teamwork — between the public and private sectors.

"I know that's how you win," Cobey said of teamwork. "It's no great secret. But pulling it off is the problem."

In addition to honoring the eight graduates, officials also inducted the newest crop of 16 prospective students and recognized the other 16 who began the program last year and are halfway through their apprenticeship.