COLUMBIA — South Carolina is at the forefront of a surge in apprenticeship programs, and its approach, born in the technical college system, has become a national model for workforce development.
Since the state launched Apprenticeship Carolina in 2007, the number of registered apprenticeship programs in the state has grown by more than 300 percent, state officials said, to more than 300 programs.
The number of apprentices at work in the state, meanwhile, has quadrupled to more than 3,100.
“We are, by far, the fastest-growing apprenticeship system in the country,” said Brad Neese, Apprenticeship Carolina director since January.
That is important, officials said, because as South Carolina has struggled with record-high unemployment in recent years, one of the complaints most often heard has been the mismatch between available work and inadequately trained workers. This program allows businesses to train people to do work that is available.
The program works like this: A company working with the registered apprenticeship program either hires or identifies a full-time employee for training to fit a company need, then constructs a hands-on training and classroom experience for four years.
The employee’s wage can rise as training progresses in the program. At the end, the employee also has a federally recognized credential certifying a broad-based level of training, adequate for hiring anywhere in the country.
Pontiac Foods, a Kroger-owned company based in Elgin, launched its first program and hired its first apprentice in December. The company manufactures and packages foods, such as coffee, spices and convenience items, for the grocery store chain nationwide.
Ray Gaites, engineering/maintenance and controls supervisor for the company, wanted a way to cultivate employees for the future. Even when the economy was down and companies closed, recruiting electrical system personnel was impossible, he said.
The program was a lifesaver for Sandra Simonds, a 33-year-old ex-military member who lost her job in Savannah and moved to Columbia to live with her mother. Simonds said that on her first day in town, she went online and saw Pontiac’s advertisement for an electrical apprentice. She applied right away.
Simonds was hired at $8 an hour and is on the way toward a future job that pays $20-$26 an hour, Gaites said.
Many S.C. companies have established apprenticeships on more than one track, both electrical and mechanical, for example.
Neese said the state’s federally authorized apprenticeship program has a “business-centric” focus. The program approaches companies to tell them solutions that are available through it.
“What we’re finding is that as we are introducing companies to this process, they look at it and they find value in it, and they say, ‘We are going to use this because this works for us,’ ” Neese said.
Registering a company with the Department of Labor’s apprenticeship program also brings a $1,000-a-year state tax credit to the company, good for as many four-year apprenticeships as the company establishes.
The General Assembly approved the tax credit, with a push by the S.C. Chamber of Commerce, the Small Business Chamber of Commerce, the S.C. Technical College System and community-based groups interested in improving the workforce.
In another sign of the success of the S.C. program, Ron Johnson, former director of apprenticeship programs in South Carolina, was named deputy administrator for the National Office of Apprenticeship in Washington in January.
“It brings an advocate to the national system that knows these partnerships can work and that they can be effective,” Johnson said.