Program gives Aiken County students hands-on experience in high school

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Modeled after the youth apprenticeship programs run in Germany, an Aiken County manufacturer has launched an education program for students to gain hands-on experience while still in high school and graduate with a mechanical certificate.

MTU Aiken, a diesel-engine manufacturer and subsidiary of Tognum America Inc., has partnered with the Aiken County School System and Aiken Technical College for the apprenticeship program.

Beginning in the fall, six Aiken County juniors will be chosen to work in the plant’s assembly line, paint station, test area and other sections alongside the 250 employees.

Juniors will start out spending two hours a month at the plant and gradually increase their time over the year to reach a full-time internship in the summer, said Joerg Klisch, Tognum America’s vice president of North American operations. The students will return their senior year for weekly sessions at the plant, and a new cohort of juniors will be introduced each year.

“An important part is this program can be replicated,” Klisch said. “If all the barber shops in Aiken County would say ‘Yeah, we have a curriculum and we could hire these kids (after graduation) if they just knew how to do a haircut’ … that would be the biggest benefit.”

It is the first program where students will graduate with an industrial mechanic basic certificate, a credential being reviewed for acknowledgement by the U.S. Department of Labor, according to career and technology center director Brooks Smith.

“First of all, they have a wonderful opportunity and pathway for employment,” Smith said. “Second, the skills and knowledge that they’re able to receive and hold on to – they’ll have that forever.”

Klisch said when students complete the apprenticeship, they will be considered for a full-time position at the plant. With the mechanical certificate, the students will also have the skills for employment at area companies that focus on assembly, such as BMW, The Boeing Co., Kimberly Clark and Bridgestone Corp.

Smith said if students continue after high school to Aiken Technical College, the certificate would count for some credit toward earning a degree.

He said the program gives students a chance to get “work-based learning that leads to employment.”

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