High school students and their families gathered at Trident Technical College this morning to sign letters that will guide their future.
None of the students was joining a college sports team — all 59 students were signing employment letters to become apprentices with Charleston-area employers.
In her opening remarks at Youth Apprentice Signing Day, Mary Thornley, president of Trident Technical College, said of the employers, “They’re willing to hire 16-, 17-, 18-year-olds, and without them, this would be just another classroom program. That’s the difference — this is not just another classroom program. This is a true apprenticeship.”
Bryan Derreberry, president and CEO of the Charleston chamber, said talent development is a top priority for his organization.
“Our region is growing at a record pace, and we must do everything possible to build the talent pipeline employers need to succeed and prepare our local youth to be hired for these great jobs,” he said.
Derreberry said 113 students have joined the apprenticeship program since it started four years ago. The program gives high school students two years of paid experience in a field of their choice.
Amy Firestone, program analyst at the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Apprenticeship, said apprenticeships train students to work in high-skill technology positions, mutually benefiting the employers and the students.
“Students with interest in all different areas, academic and career fields, will have the opportunity to get not just their feet wet, but really become experts in a field before they graduate from high school,” she said. “This is just something that we hope for all students in the United States.”
Mary Graham, chief advancement officer at the Charleston Metro Chamber, 120 employers are involved in the apprenticeship program, including automotive, health care, hospitality and IT employers.
“Employers are the easiest party to get to the table,” she said. “As you know, our unemployment rate is super low, and employers are worried about where they’re going to get the future workforce, so when we sit down and explain this program to them, we don’t even finish halfway through the explanation before they say, ‘Sign me up.’”
This morning, 59 students signed on to become apprentices, but Graham said employers are still hiring, and by the time the school year starts, the number of apprentices could be 75.
Callie Drinko, a junior at Wando High School, said her apprenticeship with Hendrick Collision Center is helping her work toward her dream job of becoming an auto mechanic. She said she originally intended to go into the military after high school because she couldn’t afford college and didn’t want to be in debt; then her guidance counselor suggested the apprenticeship program.
“He introduced this program to me, and I didn’t second-guess it at all,” she said, adding that it’s an “amazing opportunity.”
Lynn Haney-Singleton, chief nursing officer at Trident Medical Center, which is taking apprentices for the first time, said, “It’s really exciting, and a lot of our students are very energetic, very passionate, wanted to be a nurse all their lives, and this is a great path to that.”
She said she hopes that after Trident’s nine apprentices complete their two years they continue on to nursing school and continue working in health care.
Debbie Meuli, who retired as human resources manager at IFA, the automotive supplier that helped initiate the apprenticeship program, said when the program started four years ago, there were only four students and she couldn’t have imagined that it would take off the way it did.
“And we’re going to continue to grow this program, I know we are as a community,” she said. “What we’re getting back from this within our youth, within our businesses, it’s unimaginable. I’ve never seen anything quite like this before in my life.”