Tacoma students earn while they learn high-tech manufacturing skills

10/17/2018 | TACOMA, Washington

For two Lincoln High School alumni, the path to a manufacturing career started in their school welding shop.

Seth Hamilton thought about college but didn’t want to take on student loan debt. Neither did his classmate and friend since middle school, Sean Colyer.

“I was so ready to be done with school my senior year,” said Hamilton, who graduated from Lincoln in 2017.

So, when representatives of a state program called AJAC—the Aerospace Joint Apprenticeship Committee—spoke to Hamilton’s welding class at Lincoln, he listened with interest. The AJAC youth apprenticeship program offers high school students a chance to earn a competitive wage, along with high school and college credits, while learning manufacturing and basic job skills.

Hamilton and Colyer signed on. They became the first two high school students in the state to graduate from the AJAC youth apprenticeship program. AJAC—initially aimed at the aerospace industry but expanded to other manufacturers—enrolled its first cohort of student apprentices in Tacoma in 2017.

The two now work at a company in Pacific, American Structures & Design. It manufactures aluminum and stainless steel products, including balconies, railings and awnings used in commercial construction projects. 

Making an impression

AJAC’s first two youth apprentice graduates made an impression on Mark Weissenbuehler, the company president. 

“They show up every day and fulfill their commitments,” he said. “They teach others on the floor as well. They do a good job here.”

Their success helped pave the way for five more youth apprentices to join the American Structures & Design team. Their story also inspires hope in other students who do not see a four-year college or the military as desirable options.

Hamilton’s enthusiasm for his work shines through as he walks a visitor around the shop floor, explaining how workers who use computer-controlled equipment to manufacture precision parts must understand the mathematics behind the process.

“It’s the language of the machines that you have to learn”

"It's the language of the machines that you have to learn," he said. 

“Some days I’m machining. Some days I’m assembling products. You get to do a lot of bouncing around here. You have to be a versatile employee.”

Colyer originally thought his post-high school life would lead him to Green River College in Auburn, where he planned to play baseball.

Instead, he entered the AJAC program on the recommendation of his friend.

“I didn’t have a background in machining,” Colyer said. “My first machining class at Lincoln was due to AJAC.”

He liked the hands-on experience.

“It’s better than just reading it in a book,” he said.

Sean Colyer started his manufacturing career while attending Lincoln High School
Sean Colyer began his manufacturing career as a Lincoln High student
​ ​At a time when manufacturers face an aging workforce and a tight labor market, apprenticeships make sense. Weissenbuehler said the youth apprenticeships “give us reliable, dedicated employees.”

“The employers have to see the value in this program before any youth apprentices enroll,” said Aaron Ferrell, AJAC marketing communications manager. “Without them, there are no youth apprenticeships.”

AJAC’s youth program enrolls students who attend regular high school classes, along with a weekly evening class focused on manufacturing. They also earn money working part-time for their mentor employers during the school year and full-time during the summer.

AJAC bridged the gap between us and employers,” Hamilton said. 

It taught him manufacturing basics. But it also included instruction in broader job skills.

Students had to write resumes, receive letters of recommendation, go through the interview process and market themselves to employers,” Ferrell said.

Youth apprentices practiced their interviewing skills—everything from that first handshake to making eye contact—at an event where they met multiple employers. Hamilton describes it as something like speed dating—only with a potential boss.

A head start

“A big part of it is just putting yourself out there,” he said. “You can’t go in making demands. You have to start at the bottom and work your way up.”

“It’s important to go in with the mindset of wanting a career, rather than just wanting the money,” Colyer said.

In addition to offering students instruction in machining, Weissenbuehler said, the AJAC program “teaches them to be adults, to be responsible, to be accountable.”

It also gives students a head start toward an adult apprenticeship, where they continue to learn while working full-time. By the time Hamilton and Colyer complete their full apprenticeship in a few years, they’ll be just a few credits short of an associate’s degree from Bates Technical College.

Hamilton said he might like to eventually move to his company’s computer-aided design team or even earn an engineering degree. 

“I’ve started to get to know the machines,” Colyer said. “The next step might be writing code for the machines.”

For now, he’s happy to be earning and learning from a company with a comfortable vibe.

“I like this place,” he said. “You feel more like a family member. Mark makes you feel welcome.”

Hamilton derives satisfaction from simply doing the work.

“I have a huge amount of pride that I’m making something with my hands,” he said. “And I’m making something that I know is going to be useful.”