McCrory views CAT program as model for state

Governor, other elected officials, advocated for apprenticeships at graduation ceremony
May. 17, 2014 @ 05:03 AM

The partnership among a local company, public school system and community college has officials in job-starved North Carolina excited.

So excited, in fact, that a graduation ceremony for eight Lee County students in the Caterpillar apprenticeship program was attended Thursday night by U.S. Congresswoman Renee Ellmers, N.C. Gov. Pat McCrory, N.C. Sen. Ronald Rabin, N.C. Rep. Mike Stone, State Board of Education Chairman William Cobey, the entire board of directors of the State Board of Community Colleges and an international-level manager from Caterpillar. The head of the Research Triangle Regional Partnership also was present, as were a number of local politicians and business leaders.

McCrory said Lee County's program has been so successful, he wants to incentivize other businesses statewide to start similar programs. He got an ovation after announcing he will push the General Assembly to set aside extra state spending to waive apprenticeship fees for companies.

With apprenticeships for high school students, as well as an increased focus on teaching trades in the community college system, he said, the state will be poised to lure companies and narrow a well-publicized skills gap — in which companies have job openings but can't find enough workers with the required knowledge or experience.

"We're going to beat the competition because we're competitive on taxes," McCrory said, referring to the state's recent corporate income tax cuts, which were offset with expanded sales taxes. "But the biggest thing I hear from employers is, 'We will come to North Carolina if you have the talent. But we won't come if you don't have the talent.'"

Bud Marchant, president of Central Carolina Community College — where the apprentices do much of their training — was on hand Thursday night and said on Friday the governor's proposal to remove the fees would stoke companies' interest in starting apprenticeships, thus creating that talent.

But fees haven't been a deal-breaker: The college already is discussing two new apprenticeship programs with groups of four or five medium-sized companies, Marchant said. A Harnett County firm might start a machinist program this fall. A Lee County firm might start an industrial maintenance program this fall or next fall.

"I think there's a lot of interest [despite the fees] because companies see this as a pipeline to getting skilled employees," Marchant said, adding, "We let manufacturing go for about two generations, and that was a mistake to do that. Manufacturing jobs are good middle class jobs with salaries that let people raise families."

The mean salary for a welder is $39,000 a year, $41,000 a year for a machinist and $45,000 a year for commercial/industrial maintenance work.

Reid Waitt, the general manager for all of Caterpillar's compact construction equipment business around the globe — including the skid steer loaders made in Sanford — said countries in Europe and Asia have well-established apprenticeships, and the U.S. needs to catch up.

Waitt said the apprenticeship is good for Caterpillar and for the students. Even if the students don't start working with the company after graduation, he said, they can use those skills anywhere.

But there's a good chance future students in the apprenticeship program, who do get priority consideration for jobs locally, won't have to look far for employment: Brad Crace, the Sanford plant manager, said Caterpillar has plans to expand the local welding operation this time next year.

Some of the officials at Thursday night's ceremony implored the students not to stop their educations as soon as they find jobs. Linwood Powell, chairman of the state community college board, said he earned multiple college degrees while also working full time. Cobey, from the state board of education, said, "keep working hard and keep learning all your life."

And McCrory said his own father always urged him to turn off the TV and exercise his body or his brain. He said young people these days have even more distractions, from the Internet, phones and video games. He said most of those distractions are meaningless and dragging the country down in the face of global competition.

"You're going to have to exceed your potential," he told the Southern Lee and Lee County High School students on Thursday. "Because there are students across the world who want these jobs. But guess what — we're going to beat them."