Youth apprentices lead the way
The Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce launched its Youth Apprentice Program in 2014 to reduce the skills gap and prepare students for local careers. Inspired by a visit to the Alamo Academies in San Antonio in 2013, the chamber partnered with Trident Community College to build out nine pathways, leading to careers in fields like industrial mechanics, HVAC tech and machining.
“The companies here are screaming for talent, just like all over the country,” said Robin Willis, associate vice president of talent pipeline strategies at the Charleston Metro Chamber. “We don’t embark on a new pathway unless it’s a high-demand field, and most of them are high-wage, too.”
The two-year program accepts high school juniors and seniors, who spend two afternoons each week learning career skills at Trident Technical College, and two hours working with host manufacturers. They also work full-time during the summer between grades 11 and 12, while earning a wage paid from the chamber’s Accelerate Greater Charleston fund.
“Right now, there are about 100 apprentices working in our region, and we pay for their tuition, books and supplies,” said Willis. “It’s an advantage to students because they get two years of paid work experience on their resume, 30 hours of college credit and a journeyman’s certificate from the U.S. Department of Labor.”
The program received an extra boost when Project Lead the Way, a national nonprofit that helps schools incorporate career skills in their curricula, chose Charleston’s Youth Apprenticeship Program to be a pilot for a new engineering pathway. PLTW chose Charleston because the city’s high schools had already adopted parts of its engineering curriculum.
“We’re very lucky that all of the high schools in our region have paid for this for years, so we already have a pipeline of students in the engineering curricula,” said Willis. “This new pathway offers them a different exit ramp to use their skills, without necessarily completing a four-year engineering degree.”
Willis says the next step for the apprenticeship program will be securing a more sustainable source of long-term funding, which would enable a larger and more diverse cohort of students to participate.
“We want students from every level of society to be able to take advantage of these apprenticeships,” said Willis. “We want students who graduate high school with no plans to participate, because this will give them valuable exposure to great, high-demand fields here in our community.”
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