Alexander Acosta

Alexander Acosta (left), secretary of the U.S. Department of Labor, tours BMW's factory in Munich, Germany, where he met with apprentices. The visit was one of the most visible signs yet of the Labor Department's plans to keep promoting apprenticeships, which have grown rapidly in South Carolina. Provided

South Carolina's expanding apprenticeship initiative cracked a goal this week that it set a decade ago, when hardly anyone in the state signed up for on-the-job training programs.

Apprenticeship Carolina says more than 26,000 people have now enrolled in its programs since the initiative was set up in 2007, when fewer than 800 were signed up. When it was established, its original ambition was to hit 20,000 by 2020.

The new figures highlight the rapid growth of on-the-job training programs in South Carolina over the past decade in a state that historically had few apprenticeships, which have long been associated with labor unions.

At last count, the U.S. Department of Labor says, nearly 5,300 people were actively apprenticing in South Carolina last year. That’s an increase of nearly two-thirds in the last five years. The initiative, run by the S.C. Technical College System, pairs paid work with classes at community colleges.

"It did seem like a long shot," said Tim Hardee, president of the technical college system. "It’s continuing to grow — I would call it exponentially."

The announcement came as the Trump administration’s new labor secretary sought to telegraph his agency's plans to keep advocating for apprenticeships, which were a prominent initiative during the Obama administration. In a trip to Munich, Germany, Secretary Alexander Acosta visited BMW’s apprentice training facility.

"Apprenticeships hold great promise in helping American workers acquire the skills they need to get good jobs while ensuring companies can attract the talent required to succeed in this fast-moving global economy," Acosta said Wednesday in a statement.

The tour was one of the most visible signs of Acosta’s apprenticeship plans since he was confirmed by the U.S. Senate late last month. At a meeting Thursday of employment officials from top industrial and developing nations, Acosta also advocated to boost the number of women in on-the-job training programs, calling them "an essential key to addressing the skills gap that weighs down the economy in so many of our countries."

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Still, the Labor Department hasn’t yet announced any new funding or initiatives to encourage states to invest in apprenticeships. In the last years of the Obama administration, the agency awarded nearly $6 million in grants to South Carolina’s initiative.

Acosta’s BMW visit was doubly significant in South Carolina, which is home to the automaker’s largest production facility. The Spartanburg factory, which has 9,000 employees, runs an apprenticeship program modeled after the one Acosta visited.

In the last five years, 108 people have completed it, BMW spokesman Steve Wilson said. Another 25 to 30 are expected to finish next month, and, so far, everyone who’s gone through the program has landed a job with the automaker, he said.

Employers' interest in similar programs has been boosted as South Carolina’s labor market has grown tighter and businesses increasingly face shortages of trained workers. The state has also taken a broader approach to apprenticeships, expanding from traditional trades like construction to sectors like hospitality and manufacturing.

Reach Thad Moore at 843-937-5703 or on Twitter @thadmoore.