Seventeen-year-old Northgate High School student Cole McKeehan has a busy schedule. But on Fridays, he gets up extra early at 3 a.m. so he can get to his job at E.G.O. North America, a radiant heating elements and electronics factory in Newnan.
McKeehan is currently one of 27 students in the apprenticeship program. It launched in Coweta County with 10 students in the fall of 2016.
Students start the three-year program when they’re 15 years old and are matched with a nearby technical college and a factory where they learn trade skills.
McKeehan splits his time between his high school, technical college and his job at E.G.O. North America, where he makes $10 an hour.
He said he still hangs out with his high school friends but has an awareness of real-world responsibilities.
“I’ve been raised to know that I will one day have to work to live, and I’m going to have to grow up quicker. I see it as two steps early and getting out there, getting it done.”
By the time he finishes the program, he’ll have an associate’s degree along with his high school diploma.
Mark Whitlock, CEO of the Central Educational Center in Newnan, said the German American Chamber considers GA CATT “the first ever effort in the nation to use certified German apprenticeship programs with students as young as age 15 (as is the norm in Germany) and a consortium of manufacturers.”
Illinois has a similar program called ICATT, but students must be high school graduates.
Lt Gov. Casey Cagle said he expects the number of high school students in the GA CATT program will double in 2018.
“I have set a bold goal so that by 2020 every student in Georgia will have access to a College and Career Academy,” Cagle said. “Within the next few years, all of our high school students will have the opportunity to become a GA CATT apprentice.”
Companies train and mentor high school students, but they also commit to $25,000 to fund salaries for students and other expenses. Currently, there are 18 manufacturers that are part of the program in Coweta, Rockdale, Spalding and Newton counties.
Kenny Adkins with the Technical College System of Georgia said hundreds of students apply, and the state wants to accept more of them.
But the state will need more manufacturers and schools to offer a place to train apprentices.
“There is a significant need of manufacturing occupations throughout Georgia,” Adkins said. “Specifically in the Georgia Piedmont Technical College region, they have not had a manufacturing or industrial maintenance program for about 10 years.”
Advanced Manufacturing Center
Recently, it relaunched Georgia Piedmont Technical College’s manufacturing program in Covington with a new Advanced Manufacturing Center. It includes five labs and more than $1 million in new equipment.
It provides training in machine tools, electronics, mechanics, automation and process control, as well as industrial wiring and motor controls. Adkins said it is part of the state’s effort to update the technology and equipment at the technical colleges.
“There was a great need for not only this occupational training, but we also know that if these students graduate high school and go off to find themselves, then it takes them about 10 years to come back to the technical college system and look at the skilled trades as a viable career option,” Adkins said.
Adkins said training at the technical colleges is a key part of the program since child labor laws in the U.S. prevent the apprentices from working at the manufacturing plants until they turn 16.
Tony Wilding is manager of a Michelin tire plant in Covington, which has one apprentice. He said he hopes these investments will make it easier to hire in Georgia.
“When we have jobs for manufacturing or reliability technicians, we have a hard time filling them, Wilding said. “We have to go outside of the area to try and find those technicians, and part of that was that we didn’t have the facilities here in Newton County to train people.”