Would you send your 15-year-old child to work in a factory?
Some families in Georgia decided to do so, and their children are among the first in the United States who will work and go to school following a German-style curriculum.
The 10 first apprentices in industrial mechanics were honored in a ceremony at the Georgia Capitol this week, because it took a change in state law and nearly five years to make it happen.
It started when Marti Pleyer came to the U.S. five years ago to run a German subsidiary for the German company Grenzebach. At the time, he realized would soon have a hiring problem.
“I was like, what are we going to do to replenish our workforce? Because a lot of great talented people I have here working in the shop will retire very soon,” Pleyer said.
Pleyer, like other manufacturers in Georgia, needs skilled workers his factory in Newnan.
“It’s not dirty, it’s not dark, it’s not, you know, dangerous,” he said during a tour of the facility.
At the factory, workers make parts used by manufacturers of flat glass and other building materials.
Pleyer quickly discovered that America doesn’t have the pipeline of skilled workers European countries have had for over 100 years. It’s an intricate system where young people spend three years working and going to school to become certified in one of over 350 jobs.
So Pleyer had a crazy idea.
“Take what works very well in Germany, the apprenticeship program, and grow your own,” he said.
Other companies around the U.S. have dabbled in apprenticeships, but they all start after high school. Pleyer wanted the exact German model, which starts with 15-year-olds.
He found seven other companies in Coweta County to participate in an apprenticeship program. The local school system and West Georgia Technical College threw their support behind it. Then they all had to sell the idea to parents.
Lanita Henderson recalls the moment her son Josiah Henderson told her he wanted to be an apprentice instead of a traditional high schooler.
“He said ‘Mama, this is what I’ve been wanting,’ and I said ‘Oh …’” Lanita Henderson said.
Josiah had just met Pleyer and some Georgia education officials.
“They came to our school and got all the ninth graders in the cafeteria and started talking about ‘Hey, there’s this program, new pilot program,’ so I was like ‘This a good job opportunity,’” Josiah said.
About 30 kids applied for 10 apprentice spots in industrial mechanics. They’ll follow a German curriculum that’s been adjusted to accommodate the local school system.
“In the morning we have to get up super early to go to the companies and apprenticeship and then go to West Georgia Tech and take some college-level courses there and then we’re gonna end the day at our high school,” he said.
And if Josiah does this for three years, he will have earned about $25,000, a high school diploma, credit toward an associate degree, and he will be fully certified by the German Chamber of Commerce as an industrial mechanic.
Josiah’s parents are both college-educated, and it took some soul searching to share their son’s excitement, they said. They toured the factory and needed reassurances that their child would be safe.
“There is all kinds of safety,” said Lanita Henderson. “There is getting-your-fingers-cut-off safety. Then also, there’s a kid who maybe gonna be 15 in an environment of all adults.”
And then there are child labor laws. Pleyer said he worked through all the OSHA regulations and made adjustments.
“OSHA came in and said ‘This is possible’ and ‘This is not possible,’ and as long as they are classified as a student and they’re always under supervision, they can do pretty much everything,” he said.
If the apprentice pilot program is successful, state officials hope to spread it throughout the state.