I put on safety glasses and ear plugs before stepping onto the factory floor. Forklifts sped by with flashing lights. Sparks flew from welding robots. Giant machines stamped out metal panels for passenger cars and SUVs.
I was visiting Gestamp, an international auto parts maker in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
My tour of the factory was very, very noisy. But one thing I had no trouble hearing during my visit was that this factory is not just manufacturing auto parts. It’s also putting high school students on a path to opportunity.
I had come to Gestamp, a leading employer in East Tennessee, to learn about their student apprenticeship program. Launched in 2016, the program is a partnership with the local school system that offers students hands-on training in manufacturing while also helping them complete their high school diplomas.
Apprenticeship programs like this are a win-win both for the school system and for the local business community. For the school system, it helps students make important connections between their coursework and careers. What was exciting to see is how the experience working for Gestamp often gave students a new sense of purpose. This might be the program’s greatest achievement. All the students I met told me they had much bigger dreams for themselves and what they might achieve in life than they might have otherwise. Some are eager to work their way up at Gestamp and become managers. Others now have an interest in going to college or pursuing other post-secondary training.
For local businesses, the program is an important model for how partnering with local schools can help support the local economy. Tennessee has experienced strong economic growth in recent years, thanks in part to the auto manufacturing sector. General Motors, Volkswagen, Nissan, and more than 900 auto suppliers all call Tennessee home, employing more than 130,000 people.
But the economy faces a skills gap. Many businesses struggle to find skilled workers to fill jobs. According to one study, in the years ahead over 80 percent of jobs paying a living wage in the Chattanooga area will require a post-secondary certificate or degree, but currently only 35 percent of students in the region are likely to obtain this level of education.
Gestamp is one of many companies in the Chattanooga region joining forces with the school system and community leaders to support Chattanooga 2.0, an organization working to double the number of college degrees and certificates awarded to high school graduates.
During my trip to Chattanooga, I also visited The Howard School where I learned about the Future Ready Institutes, which expose students to career pathways in health care, tourism, and other local industries. Students visit local businesses for training, get some work experience, and meet with professionals in their field.
Gestamp’s program, by comparison, is much more intensive. Instead of going to their school classrooms each day, students come to the factory, where they take online classes in a computer lab and then get paid on-the-job training on the factory floor.
This kind of high school experience is not for everyone. But for the students I met who are participating in Gestamp’s program, it has been life-changing. Some of the students told me that before joining the program they had thought about dropping out of high school altogether. They struggled with poor grades, weren’t interested in going to college, and had trouble seeing a career path for themselves. The apprenticeship program gave them direction, skills, and helped motivate them to complete their studies.
I came away from my visit impressed by the tremendous impact Gestamp’s program is having on students and the community. I hope other industries in Tennessee and other parts of the country will learn from their success.