For several years, the Upstate’s manufacturing sector has been facing a talent crisis.
Economic growth, low unemployment, misconceptions about manufacturing, and baby boomers aging out of the workforce have made it difficult for firms to fill their rolls with future leaders.
A few companies have seized their own destiny and partnered with the region’s four-year and technical colleges to develop their own versions of the tried-and-true European apprenticeship model.
But Greenville-based Michelin North America is reaching even deeper into the well.
On Friday, March 9, the French tiremaker celebrated a milestone in its Michelin Youth Apprenticeship program, a partnership with Greenville County Schools (GCS).
Michelin held an event similar to signing days for high school and college athletes at the newly remodeled Enoree Career Center.
The company introduced five candidates who will participate in the program during the 2018-2019 school year and work out of Michelin’s US1 plant in Greenville County.
US1 was the first plant Michelin opened in this country in 1975.
“Today … marks a significant milestone in our shared mission with Greenville County Schools in investing in technical education in the state of South Carolina,” said Scott Clark, chairman and president of Michelin North America.
“One of the key attributes that attracted us to the Upstate was the skilled and talented workforce that we found here,” Clark added. “The textile industry had laid the groundwork for us by fostering a strong workforce that was an established, available, and committed group of people. Forty years later, having a highly skilled workforce continues to be essential to Michelin’s success and for the success of South Carolina and the entire region.”
The inaugural group of students participating in the program comprises Mauldin High School sophomores Iquavious Lewis, Janias Tinch, and Adrian O’Boyle; Mauldin junior Jacob Tucker; and Jonathan Harper, a junior who is home-schooled.
After the students signed their agreements with Michelin and GCS, they put on hats and displayed shirts bearing the tiremaker’s logo while they stood beside their new “team mascot,” Bibendum, also known as the Michelin Man.
“It feels good,” Lewis said. “I’m excited, and ready to get to work and learn.”
His mother, Patrina Lewis, said she was “a little nervous at first,” given the fact that economic downturn can quickly have a negative impact on employment in manufacturing.
“Once I learned a little bit about the history of Michelin and became aware of how long they have been in the Upstate, my mind was at ease,” she said. “I am much more excited now. He is young. But this puts him on a path that will provide him with opportunities that parents dream for their children.”
Apprenticeships enable students to earn credits, certifications, and possibly a little cash while they work and learn in a real-world setting.
Job placement for manufacturing apprentices after they graduate is about 91 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.
The starting salary for employees who have been apprenticed is $50,000 to $60,000, and those employees could earn an average of $300,000 more than their nonapprenticed co-workers during their careers, U.S. Department of Labor data showed.
“Our intent is to build a better graduate — one that is college and career ready,” said W. Burke Royster, superintendent of GCS. “In short, what it means is we produce graduates who walk across the stage and receive their diploma. When they receive that diploma, we want them to have with them one, or both, of two things in addition to a diploma. We want them to have a transcript … or an industry certification that shows those students are truly college and career ready.”
Brooks Smith, executive director of career and technology education for GCS, said the average age of manufacturing employees in the U.S. is 56.
“[Michelin] is fishing earlier and also moving into a bigger pond,” Smith said. “Youth apprenticeship does help us attract their future employees.”
Tinch said he and his fellow apprentices will be required to work in the plant three days per week and take supplementary classroom courses two days per week.
During the summer, they will work full-time hours with some unpaid vacation time.
Clark said Michelin trains about 1,200 new production associates per year. About 75 percent of its employees are promoted from within.
He said 50 percent of the employees working in management roles in plants or headquarters facilities started out “in roles like this.”
“Career development is very important to us,” Clark said. “Contributing to the economic success of the communities in which we operate is also part of our mission.”
Wilton Crawford, plant manager for US1, said Michelin hopes to roll out similar programs in all of the communities where it operates.
“This is a great opportunity for us,” Crawford said. “I was surprised to find out that the average age of our employees is in the upper 40s. We need talent that has a passion for manufacturing.”