Nation Ford students learn CATE offers great job path

Special to the Fort Mill TimesApril 16, 2014 

— Nation Ford High School celebrated Career and Technical Education Day recently.

Students participated in a bike-building event for charity and had the opportunity to hear about the benefits of work-based learning and apprenticeship from Dirk Zikeli, CEO of American operations for the German manufacturing firm Chiron. Zikeli said he started his career as a metalworking apprentice.

The day began with an assembly to recognize the participants in the career-based learning programs offered at the school. The April 10 program also served as the induction of the first 36 Nation Ford students into the National Technical Honor Society.

Any Nation Ford student who choose to take up to four classes with a career-focused curriculum that teaches real-world skills can be a CATE student. Some of the classes offered include business, agricultural science, media tech (audio/video production), auto tech and digital arts. Nation Ford CATE students have already used their computer skills to create logos for national brands and even the dragon mascot for the new Doby’s Bridge Elementary School.

Work-Based Learning Coordinator Susan Brackett said the Fort Mill School District’s Apprenticeship 2000 program allows students who complete four classes dedicated to real-world skills, have favorable references from teachers, and a minimum 2.8 GPA to have the opportunity to apprentice at one of eight participating companies. Those include advanced manufacturing firms in dire need of skilled laborers to run their state-of-the-art equipment – companies that are happy to pay for college.

“Advanced manufacturers in Europe have been using the apprenticeship model for hundreds of years,” Brackett told students. “As many as 60 percent of children like you in Europe will go through apprenticeships to learn a trade. So the success we can have together is well-known.”

Brackett introduced Hunter Kenley, a student who had successfully completed the Apprenticeship 2000 program and is now beginning a four-year apprenticeship with Siemens Energy.

“So where will Hunter be in four years?” Brackett asked. “He will have four years of work experience with Siemens Energy, a two year degree from CPCC (Central Piedmont Community College) with no college debt and four years of seniority. Not bad, right?”

Zikeli, whose company creates high-tech milling machines, said despite the prevalence of the computer-controlled milling and drilling machines in advanced manufacturing, there is a severe lack of skilled professionals who can operate them.

“We see in our labor force a gap of two generations,” Zikeli said, “That means there is a 20-year gap where it’s very difficult to find skilled people that can not only help us build these machines, but also maintain and operate them in the field.”

Zikeli pointed to common misconceptions about what careers in manufacturing are like.

“Manufacturing today is not dirty work in some dingy, dark hole,” Zikeli said.

“Those days are over. We are talking about modern manufacturing, using highly sophisticated computer-controlled equipment that requires a highly skilled work force.”

Zikeli spoke to students and parents about how he himself had benefited from the hands-on apprenticeship he began as a young man with Chiron. He was promoted from a job in assembly, where he worked with metal, to a job repairing the company’s machines throughout Europe. He eventually gained enough experience to be named the CEO of Chiron’s American operations. He noted that nine of the top 11 executive positions in the company, including himself, are former apprentices.

In fact, of the 2,000 employees that Chiron has worldwide, over 10 percent are currently in apprenticeship programs.

With the recent philosophy of manufacturers to “build it where you sell it,” American manufacturing is coming back from overseas and requires a skilled workforce, Zikeli said.

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