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  1. Education

New apprentice program serves students and businesses

The students learn to use wood and metalworking equipment at training centers and then apply those skills at a company. 
Published Aug. 20, 2015

NEW PORT RICHEY — Collin McGill wants to build Corvette engines.

Crafting and assembling parts for the sports car's engine takes an enormous level of precision and expertise. To gain the knowledge he needs, McGill forwent a traditional engineering degree at a four-year college to enroll in a brand new German-style apprenticeship certificate program that launched this year in Pasco, Pinellas and Hernando counties.

"One thing they don't tell you is when you go to a four-year school, you don't get that much work experience," the recent Sunlake High School graduate said.

The apprenticeship program, called American Manufacturing Skills Initiative, or AMskills, pairs students in 11th and 12th grades with local industrial companies. The students split their time during the school year between training centers equipped with wood and metalworking equipment to learn the basics and a company where they can apply those skills.

The companies sponsor the students, paying them for their time on the company floor and at the training center. The companies also provide the means for the students to attend community college after graduation. Students who accept the tuition money owe their sponsor another two years or are responsible for half the sponsorship fee.

At the completion of the program, students earn a German IHK certificate, a quality standard known worldwide among manufacturers. Graduates will be able to walk into German subsidiaries anywhere and have their credentials honored.

The model is mutually beneficial to the students, the companies and the region.

"If you talk to manufacturers, there's a gray-haired, older generation of skilled machinists who are going into retirement in the next five to 10 years, and there's not backfill for those positions," said Bryan Kamm, executive director of AMskills. "And it's got the manufacturers really worried they won't have the skills to keep their businesses going."

Leaders also expect the program to be a boon to the local economy, as companies will be attracted by the young, skilled workforce.

"We are going to be an economic engine to the Tampa Bay area," Kathryn Starkey, Pasco County commissioner and AMskills board chairwoman, said during the grand opening for the apprenticeship program last week.

McGill and 38 other students, some recent graduates and some still in high school, comprised the program's first summer orientation. They learned to operate drill presses, lathes and other tools to craft wooden pegboard blocks and manipulate metal. The final project was to make an aluminum frame that held their summer orientation completion certificate. Fourteen of the 39 students were sponsored, including McGill, who spent three days each week during the summer at his orientation site and two days a week at PharmaWorks, an Odessa company that makes machines that package drugs. He'll return to PharmaWorks in the fall while attending Pasco-Hernando State College.

Those who weren't sponsored were able to tour about a half-dozen companies over the summer. As more companies sign on to take apprentices, fewer of the students will be left without sponsors, Kamm said. And if a student does not get offered an apprenticeship, he or she can still earn the certificate by learning at the training centers.

Each county hosted an orientation site, which will serve as training centers during the school year: Pinellas Technical College in Clearwater, Marchman Technical College in New Port Richey and the AMskills Training Center at Brooksville-Tampa Bay Regional Airport.

Two more training sites in Pinellas, at East Lake High School in East Lake and at Dixie Hollins High School in St. Petersburg, will open for the school year.

The state Department of Economic Opportunity provided the seed money, about $1.1 million, which paid for the students' summer tuition and new equipment at the Pasco and Hernando sites, and the three counties agreed to contribute $200,000 a year each for the next two years. If it's successful, the counties can renew their commitments.

And it's likely they will, given the enthusiasm so far from both students and leaders.

"The product of this program is really engaged students," said Mark Hunt, executive director of the Office of Career, Technical and Adult Education for Pinellas County schools.

For McGill, the product is the skill set needed to one day build Corvette engines.

Or, as AMskills operations manager Trevor Charlton said, stressing the program's German influence, "Hopefully, BMW engines."

Contact Josh Solomon at (813) 226-3446 or jsolomon@tampabay.com. Follow @josh_solomon15.

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