The Caterpillar Apprenticeship Training in Welding Program, which started in 2012, provides an opportunity for high school juniors and seniors in Lee County to combine work and study.

Students not only complete related coursework at Central Carolina Community College, but also participate in training within fabrications at Caterpillar’s Sanford facility, as well as at the Innovation Center of Lee County. The apprentices also gain valuable work experience by working in Caterpillar’s fabrications in the summer between their junior and senior year.

Upon successful completion of the two-year program, graduates earn welding certificates. The North Carolina Department of Labor issues certification showing students have completed a youth apprenticeship and give each a career readiness certificate.

Work hours earned in the student apprenticeship program are transferred toward an adult apprenticeship, and students gain real-world experience through working at Caterpillar.

“The apprenticeship program continues to provide Caterpillar with a steady stream of talent and has done so right from the first graduating class,” said Martin Kegel, manager of the Caterpillar Sanford Fabrications operation. “This relationship between Caterpillar, Lee County Schools, Central Carolina Community College, and the North Carolina Department of Commerce shows what collaboration and vision can yield for the youth, the community and manufacturing in the state.”

Jimmy Randolph, Existing Industry Development manager of the Sanford Area Growth Alliance, agreed.

“In a period of almost full employment, with unemployment rates less than 5%, it is not unusual to hear employers and human resources professionals lament the difficulty of finding qualified workers to fill jobs that require highly specialized skills, such as welding,” Randolph said. “It is unusual, however, for an employer to embrace that challenge and address it as successfully as Caterpillar has with their Youth Apprenticeship Program.”

One of the credentials Caterpillar apprentices receive is the career readiness certificate through ACT, a national apprenticeship program. ACT’s mission is “to help create thriving workforce ecosystems that foster economic growth. In the pursuit of closing the skills gap, employers, educators, and economic developers work together to compete in today’s marketplace.”

The national goal is to have one million apprentices by 2024, Charles Vaughan, the North and South Carolina state director for the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Apprenticeship said in a video posted to the ACT website. When Vaughn started with the Department of Labor 10 years ago, there were about 700 apprentices and about 500 programs. That has grown to more than 1,000 program and 22,000 apprentices, he said.

It’s companies like Caterpillar that are leading the way to show how successful these programs can be.