Industry leaders lay out new career path for Olympic High students

jmarks@lakewyliepilot.comNovember 16, 2013 

— Olympic High students learned last week they may not need college to land a high-paying job.

A visiting contingent of leaders from the American Council on Germany and leaders from Charlotte companies talked Thursday to about 50 Olympic High School students about an alternative route to high-paying careers other than the university path.

Mark Rohlinger, plant manager at the Bosch Rexroth facility in Charlotte, jumpstarted the conversation by announcing an $80,000 donation to create a machine shop and mechanics program at Olympic, similar to what’s being done at Central Piedmont Community College in Charlotte. That’s in addition to $42,000 and about 3,000 volunteer hours committed to Olympic’s new robotics program, which began earlier this year.

Rohlinger said the industry needs highly skilled machinists.

“We are having a very difficult time finding those types of people,” Rohlinger said. “About a year ago we realized, we need to start growing our own.”

Company leaders say there’s more need for skilled workers – engineers, robotic specialists, machinists – than there are applicants. Part of the reason, industry leaders said Thursday, is parents in the U.S. see community college and associate degrees as a lesser goal than four-year universities or military service. In Germany, that’s not the case.

“This is your route to your future,” said Dr. Norbert Fuhrmann, an instructor in Germany whose community college has seen about 2,500 students in its apprenticeship program. “It’s regarded as a last resort. That’s wrong.”

German students are required to participate in three apprenticeships during their final three years of what’s equivalent to high school here. Corporations work with schools to train students to become workers the companies need. The result, according to the council, is a strong manufacturing output with exports making up 47 percent of the German economy, compared to 11 percent in the U.S.

Bill Drozdiak, American Council on Germany president, is based in New York City but helps with German-American companies in the South, such as Siemens in Georgia and BMW in South Carolina. According to the Council, there are 500,000 workers at German-American companies in the U.S., with half working in manufacturing.

“We see our mission as helping Germany and the U.S. learn best practices from each other,” Drozdiak said.

Apprenticeships in manufacturing aren’t what people think, he said. The hard, physical labor of the automotive industry, for instance, is mostly a thing of the past.

“Today you’re pushing buttons on a computer,” Drozdiak said. “It’s the robots that are doing the hard work on the floor.”

The German group, which also met with the Charlotte Chamber of Commerce, may use Olympic as a model in future conversations. There are eight companies participating in Apprenticeship 2000, named for the year when the first Olympic students graduated. Former and current Olympic students talked about their experiences apprenticing and, for some, landing lucrative jobs.

“It’s just an alternative track, a path that you should know about and have access to,” said Mike Realon with the school.

Apprentices told current students how “C’s get degrees but A’s get you paid” and how in the workplace, people you don’t like “should never know you don’t like them.” They talked about paying attention in trigonometry class. Aivy Nguyen is a senior at Olympic who’s apprenticing at Bosch Rexroth.

“It’s something I want to do,” she said. “I don’t want to go to work every day and dread it.”

Apprentices and business leaders told students that local programs, while competitive, are ways to get an education paid for without student debt and a job is waiting at the other end of the apprenticeship. And, they said, often those jobs pay better than what graduates of four-year programs find.

“It’s not a free ticket,” Nguyen said. “You have to work for it. They give you a job, but it’s your job to keep up with.”

Apprenticeship 2000 is one of several community initiatives at Olympic, including Alignment SW Charlotte, which includes area business leaders, churches and volunteer groups. The robotics donation announced Thursday is the newest addition planned at Olympic, which also will see almost $9 million in classroom additions following a bond vote earlier this month in Mecklenburg County.

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