When Aiken County Public Schools Superintendent Sean Alford asked Darby Wills what he wanted to do following graduation, the Aiken High School student grinned.
“Are you hiring?” he asked.
Wills is taking part in Aiken Works, a program designed to connect students to local companies for apprenticeships to learn hands-on skills they can use in the future. He’s currently working with the IT division in the school system, which he said is a good resume-builder and helps him learn skills for the field he hopes to enter one day.
Lafayette Stewart Jr., lead coordinator for Aiken Works, met with business leaders Wednesday in Aiken to urge them to join other companies already offering paid apprenticeships to students.
Jeremy Diebel, senior manager machining and apprentice coordinator at MTU America, shared his company’s success with Aiken Works. At the MTU America plant in Graniteville, students work on high-horsepower diesel engines, requiring a specific skill set, but Diebel said it’s nothing they can’t handle.
“If a 16- or 17-year-old can do this, I don’t think there’s any job they won’t do,” Diebel said.
Diebel said he hopes students will stay with MTU America as employees, but that’s not the ultimate goal of the program. Students often go into another work field, attend college or enlist in the military, but the program helps them gain skills.
Robert Crenshaw, apprenticeship consultant with Apprenticeship Carolina, said a new workforce is needed in the wake of the “silver tsunami,” with thousands of jobs becoming available as employees retire. Crenshaw told business leaders this opportunity does not cost them anything, but can actually give them a bonus, as they receive $1,000 in tax credits per year per apprentice.
David Jameson, president/CEO of the Aiken Chamber of Commerce, said approximately 37,000 jobs will be vacated in the next five years in the area and believes Aiken Works will help fill that void.
Aiken Works will not just be confined to Aiken, Stewart said. Since beginning the job in October, he has already met with business stakeholders across the Savannah River.