Preparing students for the modern workforce
Welders bonded metal to metal in the welding shop at the Lee County Innovation Center. Sparks from their torches reflected in the dark glass faceplates of their helmets.
Then the workers turned off their torches and raised their faceplates, revealing smiling, teenage faces, both male and female.
Welcome to the Caterpillar Youth Apprentice Program in welding.
These young people, all seniors at Lee County or Southern Lee high school, are the pioneers in a new, two-year program with the goal of preparing them for an in-demand career, future education, and the responsibilities of being productive members of their communities.
“This is the best opportunity I could have asked for,” said Briana Peterman, a Lee County High School senior and one of two young women in the apprentice program. “I was nervous at first when we worked during the summer at Caterpillar, but they were very nice. I definitely have a vision to be a welder.”
Notwithstanding their youth, the apprentices spent many hours during the previous school year at Central Carolina Community College and Caterpillar Inc.’s Sanford Fabrication Facility, learning and honing their welding and other skills essential in a manufacturing environment.
During the summer between their junior and senior years, the group of 10 young men and two young women spent up to 32 hours a week at Caterpillar working with adult mentors, implementing the skills they spent the previous year learning and earning money as apprentices. They worked with a section manager under team leaders who were journeymen adult welders. The apprentices rotated through the company's fabrication lines, working with a mentor welder for each job assigned.
“The students had a positive impact on productivity across all cells where they worked,” said Martin Kegel, facility manager. “Their preparation and training prior to beginning their summer work was evident, as each one already knew the basics of workplace safety, standard work, and MIG welding. We were sad to see them head back to school for their senior year, yet very proud to know that in one year, we will have a motivated, productive group of young people who will be ready to enter the workforce.”
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (www.bls.gov), there were about 338,000 welders in the United States in 2010. By 2020, the bureau projects that there will be a need for about 51,000 more. Part of that increase will be from an American industrial base that is once again growing after many years of decline. The students in the apprentice program are aware of that.
“I love welding,” said Anthony Woodlief, a senior at Southern Lee High School. “I think this apprentice program is a really good opportunity, and I really liked the summer program. I think that it is great that the American industrial base is coming back and we are getting more people employed in the U.S. and not sending our manufacturing jobs elsewhere.”
The Caterpillar Youth Apprentice Program in welding was developed by, and is a partnership among, Caterpillar, CCCC, Lee County Schools and the N.C. Department of Labor.
The goal is to train high school students through their junior and senior years for critical, high-demand, well-paying careers in welding, as well as to help provide the skilled workforce Caterpillar and other modern industries need.
Chuck Keltz, Caterpillar-Sanford’s Fabrications Group manager, started working as an apprentice welder in 1993 at the company’s Joliet, Ill. facility.
“This Youth Apprentice in Welding program is a great opportunity,” he said. “I would have jumped at this program if I had had the opportunity in high school. They are so much ahead of their peers, having experience with a world-class manufacturing company before they graduate high school.”
The students continue their high school studies during their junior and senior years while taking welding and manufacturing-related classes. They train at CCCC’s Lee County Campus or its Industry Training Center at the Lee County Innovation Center three days a week and work/train at Caterpillar two days per week. Training costs at the campus are funded by state per-student community college funding. Training at the Innovation Center and the Caterpillar facility is funded by the North Carolina Community College's Caterpillar Customized Training Program and Caterpillar.
“The Caterpillar Youth Apprentice Program in welding is one of the great success stories of educating America's young people in the skills of 21st-century, high-tech manufacturing,” said Bud Marchant, president of Central Carolina Community College. “The partnership of the college, Caterpillar, Lee County Schools and the North Carolina Department of Labor exemplifies that collaborative apprentice programs will become a major resource for the highly skilled workforce industry and our nation must have to maintain their roles as leaders of the global economy.”
The students are now back at their schools for their senior year. By May, they will have earned a high school diploma, Basic Welding Certificate, OSHA Safety Card and Career Readiness Credential from CCCC, and an NCDOL certificate certifying successful completion of the apprentice program.
They will also have completed the 80-hour Caterpillar Accelerated Training Program, hours toward the company's adult apprentice in welding and have two years' experience as part-time Caterpillar employees. When they turn 18, they can apply for a position at Caterpillar and will get preferred employment opportunity.
“This program is a benchmark for other organizations desiring to bring manufacturing back to the forefront as a viable career path,” said Cathy Swindell, CCCC Industry Services director. “We've gotten a lot of attention from other colleges, industries and school systems regarding how they can accomplish the same thing. It's also encouraged several industries to consider adult apprentice for current employees. I'm very proud of our apprentices and what they have [accomplished] and will accomplish.”
For more information about the Caterpillar Youth Apprentice program in welding, contact Lee County Schools Career Development coordinators Brooke Rice, at Southern Lee High School, brice.sl.lee.k12.nc.us, or Alison Poole at Lee County High School, firstname.lastname@example.org.