Northeast State, RCAM, manufacturers expanding apprenticeship program


The Northeast State Community College Regional Center for Advanced Manufacturing (RCAM) is quickly finding more takers for its apprenticeship program. The program combines on-the-job training at the facilities of a partnering employer along with classroom-based related technical instruction at the RCAM in downtown Kingsport.

Currently, the RCAM is offering apprenticeship programs for mechatronics technicians. The center has also added a path for an industrial maintenance associate. “In our current programs, we have partnered with Silgan Closures, Primester, Fiber Innovation Technologies (FIT), and Snap-on with employees enrolled in Mechatronics,” says Heath McMillan, RCAM director. “Mechatronics is a combination between mechanical and electrical crafts. Many companies now are looking for the multi-skilled trade craftsman, so that blends the two together.”

The program creates positive opportunities for all involved, says Jeff McCord, vice president for Economic and Workforce Development at Northeast State. “(The companies) get a structured training program that allows their employees to progress along a line to gain higher skill levels. Specifically, for these programs, it’s in mechatronics relating to industrial maintenance.
“What the employee gets is an investment in their skill set, a progressive wage rate as they progress in the program, and at the end, they graduate, if you will, into having a journeyman card from the Department of Labor in that particular occupation,” McCord says. “That card has been the most widely-recognized industry credential since before industry credentials were cool. It’s as good as it gets. So in that field, that’s a degree.”

Both the employer and the apprentice get the benefit of having a higher education institution manage the process for them. “We’re providing structure both for the company and for the individual. That’s really a lot of the value in what we provide for them. We give them a structure to follow. Also, there’s accountability in it because they have to report back those hours in order to get credit for that on-the-job learning.”

In the past, fear of bureaucratic red tape has kept some employers from considering offering apprenticeships, Mc Millan says. That fear, combined with expense, has put off companies that otherwise might benefit. “It’s expensive, and for companies, it’s not easy because apprenticeships can be hard to manage. That’s what we bring to those smaller companies: an element to manage the on-the-job training and the job-related education as well.”

“It’s hard for a smaller company that’s only going to have three or four apprentices to build all that infrastructure just for those few apprentices, unlike some of our larger partners who already have that infrastructure and have that scale,” McCord says. “Our value is bringing that scale to help implement that very good learning model.”

Now the challenge is to scale up the program itself. “We have some things in the pipeline that are really going to get us there,” McCord says. “We’re hard after it, but we don’t want to do it at a pace at which we lose quality. What we do next is all based on demand.”

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