Signing day held for county’s skilled labor apprenticeship program

PELHAM – To address the constant and ongoing challenge of finding quality skilled workers, an apprenticeship program has been formed in Shelby County to create a pipeline of machinists to feed growing demand and workforce gaps.

58 Inc. in partnership with the Greater Shelby County Chamber of Commerce hosted a signing day event on Wednesday, Aug. 15, to highlight the county’s newest workforce development initiative – the U.S. Department of Labor Machine Tool Technology Registered Apprenticeship Program. This program was formed in partnership with Lawson State Community College and a consortium of local employers.

The businesses participating in the program are Alabama Plate Cutting Company, Sealing Equipment Products Company Inc. (SEPCO) and Precision Grinding Inc. The employers participating in the program agree to paid apprenticeships as well as to pay tuition costs for the apprentices.

The program is a direct response to the expressed needs of local employers for highly skilled laborers as well as a commitment made by the leaders of 58 Inc. and the GSCCC through the Shelby One – Next Level Up campaign to identify and meet local employer needs through partnered initiatives.

The pilot program is made up of eight apprentices who are recent high school and GED program graduates and already-employed entry-level laborers with a desire to advance their careers. During the three-to-four-year program, apprentices will work during the day as Computer Numeric Control (CNC) machinists, receiving on-the-job training, and attend classes two nights per week.

Tristan Russell will be an apprentice at Alabama Plate Cutting; Brandon Krutsch, Preston Jones and Blake Finneran will be apprentices at Precision Grinding; and Joe Rauls, Jacqueline Aquirre, Trey Coker and Sam Ross will be apprentices at SEPCO.

“Having my education paid for, paired with on-the-job experience, is an offer too good to pass up,” said Rauls, a 2018 Thompson High School graduate.

Lawson State President Dr. Perry Ward said the program is an opportunity for young adults to change the direction of their lives.

“This is an opportunity for them to enhance the quality for life themselves and their families,” he said.

A person coming out of the college’s Workforce Development Division, which recently received awards from the White House, can earn $50,000 to $60,000 annually, he said. In three to four years, if they’re good at what they do, they could be making six figures.

Paul Rogers, 58 Inc. board member, said it’s important to re-educate youth and make sure they know what options are available to them when thinking about a career path.

“We need to teach them that there are other routes to success,” he said.

Although employers frequently express their frustrations about how hard it is to find quality skilled workers, Rogers said few of them were willing to step up and be a part of the solution.

Mike Evers, plant manager at SEPCO, said SEPCO has been searching for skilled machinists for going on 24 months without much success. He said he had no idea he wasn’t alone with his struggles until he participated in a roundtable discussion with other manufacturers about a year or so ago. This is also around the time Evers began learning about efforts to start an apprenticeship program.

“Once established, apprenticeship programs are very successful, that’s been proven,” he said. “But what we’re essentially doing is employing people who don’t yet have these skills, so that’s tricky when you’re still running a business.”

Within the past few months, Evers said he has learned that there are organizations that reimburse businesses for money spent on wages and that provide funding for tuition.

“Right now, there are three businesses participating and I have great confidence in the program,” Evers said. “I’m excited to see it grow. To parents, I challenge you to open your eyes to the opportunities of manufacturing. It’s a sector that provides great jobs with great benefits.”

58 Inc. Managing Director Yvonne Murray said there are several disciplines that fall into the Department of Labor’s Machine Tool Technology Registered Apprenticeship Program, such as healthcare, hospitality, transportation, telecommunications and much more. Murray said the plan is to grow the program to include other disciplines and to expand the program into the region, not just Shelby County.