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Chip Singleton has lived his whole life in Canton, North Carolina, a small town tucked in a narrow valley in the state’s mountainous western corner. He met his wife, Patty, at the Pisgah High School — the only high school in town — and 25 years later, they both teach there; she drafting and he metal shop.
But Singleton’s Great Smoky Mountains roots didn’t stop him from seeking inspiration in faraway places. He specifically zeroed in on Germany, Europe’s economic dynamo famous for its rigorous apprenticeship programs that prepare teenagers for manufacturing jobs. Students in these programs split their time between the classroom and the factory floor of a sponsor company, where they work side by side with its employees. When Singleton read an article about the German model in a newspaper, he was so impressed by the results that wanted to give his students the same chance.
The timing was good. After Canton lost its paper mill — the main source of employment for decades — high school graduates were struggling to find jobs. But in 2005, a handful of students landed at Smiths Aerospace in Asheville, some 25 miles away, and Singleton got an unexpected call from the plant’s hiring manager. Smiths, which is now part of GE Aviation, was making jet engine components and flight management systems, and the company was having a hard time finding enough qualified workers. Could Singleton send more students? “I knew they were willing to pay to make sure they had the talent they needed,” Singleton says. “I came up with the idea of an apprenticeship.”
The idea worked out so well that Singleton’s school just received a $100,000 grant from the GE Foundation to expand the program and expose students to the latest technologies. The grant coincides with GE’s annual meeting, which the company is holding Wednesday at a GE Aviation’s new, 170,000-square-foot plant in Asheville. The factory is making parts for the latest jet engines from a space-age material called ceramic-matrix composites (CMCs). The light- and heat-resistant material allows engineers to design more efficient jet engines, but also gas turbines and other machines. “It’s been a great partnership,” Singleton says.
In order to apply for the apprenticeship in their senior year, students in ninth, 10th and 11th grades must take a number of required metal and drafting courses. GE accepts two to four seniors each year who work at GE Aviation in Asheville every day from noon to 6 p.m.
In addition to on-the-job training, students receive an elective credit for the program, and a grade. They also get paid. “It’s great money for a kid from the hills,” Singleton says. “Way better than what their buddies are making at the thrift store.”
Some 50 young men and women have graduated from the program since it started. Singleton points out that the apprenticeship program benefits everyone involved. “GE is getting young talent who haven’t learned bad habits yet,” he says. “And we’ve found they’re extraordinarily loyal to the company, too. They figure, ‘GE took a chance on me when I was just a kid. I’m going to stand by them.’ ” The students also get a leg up into the professional life — without a mound of student debt.
Once the program started, it became its own best recruiting tool. “These guys all have spending money, and most of them buy a nice vehicle,” Singleton says. “The other students take notice.”
Up next is a summer program. “One of the students asked why he had to wait until next fall to start apprenticing,” Singleton says. “He said, ‘I’m not doing anything this summer. Why can’t I start now?’ So we’re working on it.” It just so happens that eager student has an older brother who went through the program — and works at GE Aviation.