By Pete Zamplas
Local high school seniors got a taste of where they might work for decades, as they toured several local industries as an initial step of the burgeoning mechatronics engineering apprenticeship program.
This is the second year of the Made in Henderson County (MIHC) Manufacturing Apprenticeship program. It matches soon-to-be high school grads with local industries, for trial terms with aim of long-term employment.
“The MIHC Apprenticeship program is a game changer for those looking for education and on-the-job application” of high-tech skills, Henderson County Partnership for Economic Development (HCPED) Pres. Brittany Brady stated.
The manufacturers pledge to pay each apprentice a competitive salary during the on-the-job training, then to offer the person a job offer upon satisfactory completion of the program. It usually begins in August, after selections by the companies.
Good news amidst the Coronavirus pandemic is that much of apprentices’ coursework from local Blue Ridge Community College can be done online, organizers noted. All BRCC course content is delivered remotely through at least April 3, and started so on March 18.
“It’s a tremendous opportunity for a student to earn a tuition-free Mechatronics Engineering certification (from BRCC) while employed with a partner company,” Henderson County Public Schools Supt. Bo Caldwell said.
Students learn electrical and mechanical systems using computers, robots et al. Local industries’ tasks include making polymers, technical ceramics, die-casting and machining, molding, and packaging.
Caldwell calls it the “ideal career pathway for our students who see themselves in advanced manufacturing.” BRCC Pres. Dr. Laura Leatherwood said apprentices gain “competitive edge” in that field and local jobs. The 5,700 manufacturing jobs in 130 companies comprise 15 percent of the workforce in Henderson County.
The apprentice dedicates one classroom day per week over three semesters, while working the remainder of a 40-hour week for the manufacturer. Work continues at 40 hours weekly in the summer, when there are usually no classes.
HCPS Director of High Schools Dr. Wendy Frye said students find out “firsthand what awaits them upon graduation” in the work world. She pointed to apprentices’ “competitive salaries and benefits.” Hourly pay starts at $14, rises 50 cents in the second semester starting in early 2021, then jumps another dollar to $15.50 for the third and final semester. That is 85 percent of the national average journeyman’s wage of $17, as a U.S. Labor Department standard, noted Byers Fabricating’s Carol Trainor. She is the firm’s Human Resources administrative assistant.
After working 90 days at Byers, the apprentice is entitled to partial company benefits such as vacation time, Trainor said.
The apprenticeship joins industries, Henderson County Public Schools, BRCC, and HCPED. Seven local plants are involved. Starting this year are Byers Precision Fabricators, Inc., Raumedic AG, and Mountain Showcase Group. Dan Casto’s Mountain Showcase’s handcrafted cabinetry is custom made at 211 Sugarloaf Rd., near I-26. German-based Raumedic makes polymer systems and parts for medical and pharmaceutical companies, using injection molding. Its local plant is in Mills River.
They join these four industries from the inaugural year: Elkamet (which The Tribune toured), Meritor, GF Linamar, and WestRock. They are in the Arden-Fletcher industrial belt. Twenty-one 2019 grads began as apprentices in 2019, and officials said all are continuing their training.
This local program is an official North Carolina Apprenticeship, registered with the N.C. Department of Commerce.
A pre-apprenticeship program at BRCC prepares apprentice candidates, and is tuition-free for them. It focuses on team building and leadership exercises that contribute to their selection as apprentices, safety standards and other matters.
Recently, students checked out plants in the program via guided tours. Some students said they saw all seven industries, while others keyed on ones they figured they like most.
After all of the tours, each student lists a pecking order of these industries from one to seven in order of which they prefer to apprentice with.
The tours also enable the industries to size up apprentice applicants, such as their attentiveness and curiosity about specific plant operations and skills.
This sets up a dynamic session of “speed interviewing,” bringing together industries and potential apprentices, said Blue Ridge Community College’s Shanda Bedoian. Apprentice applicants rotate from industry to industry, interviewing for five minutes with each one, Bedoian explained. She said the industries choose apprentices about a week later. Athletic-like “signing days” honor contracts of the apprentices with industries.
Bedoian is BRCC’s director of Corporate/Customized Training. She said Christie Locker of BRCC is a key supervisor.
There are 131 Career & Technical Education Scholars in the county. All of them seeking to be apprentices are accepted into the program, Bedoian noted. A year ago, North Henderson had the most (11) apprentices signing contracts. There was more balance this time, among the four public high schools.
Byers is where The Tribune joined the tour for students this year, on March 12. Byers specializes in precision sheet metal fabricating and laser processing. Industrial clients want parts made by Byers to be of utmost quality and fit precisely, Trainor said.
She said Byers employees 36 people, and told The Tribune the company aims to hire at least two qualified apprentices. She said that as the pandemic was emerging, just before it clouded many employers’ operations and plans nationwide.
Byers began in 1942 as a sheet metal shop on Seventh Avenue and emerged as a large ductwork and roofing contractor. Byers’ current 60,000-square-foot facility was built in the Eighties. It is off of Dana Road, just north of I-26 on the edge of Hendersonville.
Paul Byers founded the company. His son Roger expanded it, and now Roger’s son Anthony runs it. Roger Byers has an “incredible mind” while sharp Anthony pitches in on various tasks, Trainor said.
She told aspiring apprentices on the tour that if chosen by Byers, “you’ll learn specialized precision work, and get paid for it.”
Trainor listed trained skills needed at Byers. They include engineering, laser cutting, welding, grinding, brake press operation, hand-crafting, electrician, maintenance and shipping.
Lasers fascinate Jeremiah Hansen, a Hendersonville Bearcat. “It looks dangerous, yet cool.” Morgan Davis and Martin Hunter, also of HHS and touring Byers, like welding.
North Henderson’s Joseph Deutter wants to learn computer coding, to help engineer parts. East Henderson’s Augustina Mendez among others are weighing skill options.
Byers’ products include stainless steel cabinets, storage drawers, toolboxes, brackets, and steel fittings.
Tour guide James Drake has worked for Byers for 20 years, starting soon after graduating in 1999 from East Henderson. He is primarily a welder. He said he has liked such tasks as fabricating — forming parts, and molding them together.
Drake said three-fourths of the time, TIG welding is used since it is more “accurate and perfecting.” MIG/TIG (tungsten inert gas) welding uses tungsten steel, argon gas (to shield melted metal) and electricity sparks. A quicker but messier type of welding is with a gun, and feeding wire.
Quality control might initially check one per 50 in a batch of parts, Trainor said. But if that one part is defective, they then inspect the other 49 parts. “We care about the work that we do.”
Versatility pays off. Trainor noted Byers workers are cross-trained. If need for their main skill dims, they can switch to tasks needed most for that ongoing order. “We’re a job shop,” Drake said, noting skills vary project to client project.
Also, cross-training enables a worker to sub in other areas and gain extra hours and discover a niche that may differ from what was anticipated.
Drake said it is extra rewarding to see a finished part, the end result of one’s labor. He showed to the students various finished Byers products such as turbine sections for General Electric, and crafted furnace pipes. Some fit into oxygen sensors. He said a stick rod shaped some. Sub-sections were welded together. Drake spoke of calipers, thread gauges and other instruments to achieve precision quality.
Trainor showed students images of a very public and lasting achievement of Byers craftsmanship. It is stylish decor on the 19-foot-high exterior of newly-renovated Kimpton Hotel Arras. That was the BB&T bank building, at 7 Patton Ave. in Downtown Asheville.
Many current workers have worked nearly 30 years at Byers, Trainor said. She touted worker perks. Work breaks can be outside on picnic tables. The tour there was in early evening, when a light workforce was on shift making it much less disruptive to venture spot to spot.