Earning while they learn

New precision manufacturing apprenticeship program with TPS first in state

3/29/2017 | TACOMA, Washington

​The dominant paradigm in education follows a predictable path: Schooling leads to a vocation, which then becomes a career. The path begins in kindergarten, heads straight to high school graduation, and for some, college, and then on to the working world.

That path’s relatively new. In the not-so-distant past, trades often passed from experienced to novice workers via the apprenticeship model, which still exists but mostly for adult workers.

Tacoma Public Schools, partnering with the Aerospace Joint Apprenticeship Committee (AJAC), begins a new program this year—the first in the state--to place high school students in precision manufacturing apprenticeships. AJAC was created as a stand-alone non-profit by the state legislature in 2008 to promote apprenticeships in the precision manufacturing fields, but to date has concentrated on older apprentices. Funding for AJAC initiatives comes from a combination of state, federal and private grants.

The first 15 high school students will sign on with local companies as apprentices April 6 at Pacific Machine Inc., in Lakewood, one of the companies participating. Governor Jay Inslee plans to attend.

“We’ve been hiring kids out of Lincoln (High School) to clean the shop and those kind of things for years, and then after graduation if they still wanted to hang around we’d send them to a four-year apprenticeship program,” said Jim Tschimperle, the owner of Pacific Machine. “With this apprenticeship plan they’ll go to that program with a full year of their apprenticeship already done. It’s a great opportunity for everybody.”

Students will learn industrial safety and the operation of CNC (computer numerical control) routers and other high-tech manufacturing tools. Machinists use CNC routers  to create parts for everything from cars to airplanes to factory machinery.

“The average age of most apprentices is around 30,” said Tacoma Public Schools’ Career and Technical Education Director John Page. “There seems to be about a 10-year ‘drift’ for a lot of people, where they graduate high school, then they perhaps try college or even go to college and get a degree, and don’t really get into a career. A lot of apprentices enter their fields after that ‘drift.’”

Kristi Grassman, director of pre-apprenticeship for the Aerospace Joint Apprenticeship Committee, says many of the precision manufacturing companies she works with worry about their aging workforces.

“One of the company owners told me he started in his field when he was 17,” she said. “He’s in his late 50s now, and he was saying he really wished the company could build a relationship with younger apprentices who are in the age range he was when he started. He said he’d hire students tomorrow, if he could, because he could mold and shape them the way he wanted.

”Apprenticeship programs at the high school level invert the classic education path, according to Page. Rather than education leading to a job, apprenticeships begin with the job and continue with education.

Adult apprenticeship programs require the apprentice to spend 8,000 hours working at the job to gain the rank of journeyman. The new program required the creation of a new job class—production technician—to allow high school students to participate under union rules.

The new program will comprise 2,000 hours of work and classroom time, which will count towards the 8,000 hour requirement after the student graduates high school. The students also get paid for those 2,000 hours—and earn up to 15 college credits through Bates Technical College. Students work 10-20 hours per week during the school year and full time in the summer. Pay varies depending on the employer. Union rules set the pay rates, somewhat higher than minimum wage.

“Production technician is a general enough title to allow students to learn on and be exposed to a wide range of different machinery,” Grassman said. “But then the program also allows them to gain standing in adult internships, sort of a Running Start for industrial work.”

And despite the word “aerospace” in the title of her committee, Grassman said the training opportunities cover far more than just potential employment at Boeing.

“We do serve companies that are in Boeing’s supply chain, but that’s not all,” she said. “There are also companies that make food processing equipment, medical devices, all sorts of companies that do advanced manufacturing.”

Tschimperle said the program will not only train the next generation of craftsmen in machining and precision manufacturing, but also gives his company and others a means of giving back to the community—by helping young people find good jobs.

“The beauty of it is, employers are always looking for people who have experience, but kids just getting out of school have no experience,” he said. “With this situation kids will already have a year of experience, they’ll be able to say they worked on these machines, and they’re familiar with these other machines, that sort of thing. It’s a big deal. And this is just the pilot program, and we’re happy to be part of that. The big plan is, once the bugs are worked out and everything is in place, to expand the program to school districts all over the state, so we’ll be helping people statewide get good jobs.”