By Jennifer Crossley Howard
LIBERTY — The School District of Pickens County has long prepared high school students for careers in machine technology at United Tool and Mold. On Wednesday, the school district and the company formalized their relationship and announced an apprenticeship program.
The district's Career and Technology Center, Apprenticeship Carolina and United Tool and Mold will collaborate on a program in which juniors and seniors can start a career at the Easley tooling and manufacturing company and ultimately become full-time employees.
School and business leaders say the apprenticeship program will help revive the skilled trades industry the Upstate needs.
High school students will learn skills they will get paid to use on the job. United Tool will gain employees. Businesses considering locating to Pickens County will find comfort knowing that they can hire from a new generation of skilled workers.
"We want the pick of the litter, and we want the best and brightest," said Jeremy Arnett, coordinator of United Tool's apprenticeship program.
Each school year, United Tool will hire two 11th-graders, said Carla Whitlock, a consultant with Apprenticeship Carolina, which is part of the state technical college system. Students will learn about the business while working there and taking classes at the technology center. They will work the summer before their senior year and work during their senior year while also attending classes.
"During that whole time, they're getting wage increases," Arnett said.
The students will start out making $9 an hour, $1.75 above the federal minimum wage.
After they complete the apprenticeship program, they will receive a certificate from the U.S. Department of Labor, Whitlock said.
Following graduation, they will be ready to start school at Tri-County Technical College.
The United States has turned away from skilled trades over the past 20 years, said Scott Phipps, who founded United Tool and Mold in 1995. He said the apprenticeship program can help correct and establish its own talent pool instead of constantly competing in a shrinking one.
"This country was built off of skilled trades," he told students. "We have to get this country back on track, and we want to be a part of it."
Though the retention rate is high at United Tool for Pickens County school graduates — there are currently 17 workers out of 77 who came from the technical center — Phipps knows that not all trainees will stay with his company.
And that's OK, he said. Skills are invaluable, he emphasized, and some machinists decide to get four-year engineering degree. Others have worked their way up to plant manager or into administration.
Toby Wofford, a senior at Easley High School, worked 50 hours a week last summer at United Tool. He eventually wants to be a computer numerical control machinist or a tool maker. The best part of working on site, he said, was learning from the guys who had been there for 30 years.
"They gave me the chance to learn how to tear down molds," Wofford said. "It's a great opportunity."