North Carolina molder Bright Plastics finds success with apprenticeship program, supporting a career path that has already produced one full-time employee.

As a young person who has always liked working with his hands, Phillip Fuller was looking for something other than the traditional four-year college track as his high school career was beginning to wind down.

Meanwhile, molder Bright Plastics was looking for a worker – a situation familiar to many plastics processors that have seen jobs go unfilled.

Thanks to an apprenticeship program established in Guilford County, N.C., where Bright Plastics is located, the company and Fuller have found each other. Both sides say they’ve benefited from the earn-and-learn opportunity.

“It’s more or less the stability that comes along with it. Paid college and a job – it’s always a plus,” Fuller, 21, said. A car enthusiast, he enjoyed helping his father restore a 1993 Chevrolet S-10, and he said he loves how his job as a process technician has exposed him to varied challenges and allows him to stay busy.

Todd Poteat, VP of manufacturing for Bright Plastics, loves having Fuller on the job, too. The company currently employs five apprentices and anticipates taking on two more next year.

“There’s a constant challenge to the kids. We’ve found that they’re all very smart, and they need to be challenged constantly to keep them engaged and focused,” said Poteat, who has chaired the 5-year-old Guilford Apprenticeship Partners (GAP) since its inception.

In August, Fuller became the first person to join Bright Plastics’ full-time workforce after graduating from GAP, a four-year program that matches ambitious young people with employers in the community.

Open to rising high school seniors, as well as new graduates, GAP gives students educational and career opportunities. High schoolers split their time between work and school; once out of high school, participants balance their time between work and Guilford Technical Community College in an 80-to-20 percent split. They complete the program with an associate’s degree.

Students gradually take on progressively more responsibility each year they’re in the program, learning all about how their company operates. Along the way, they are paid an hourly wage – from $9 for first-year trainees to $15 for fourth-years.

It’s quite a commitment on both sides, Poteat acknowledged. But it is worth it.

“Part of the reason we do it is selfishness for us, to make us successful, but also to do it for the community,” Poteat said. “Say we take one of the kids and train them, and they decide that Bright’s not the place for them, then we’ve trained them for somebody else to pick up, so we’re kind of raising the intellectual capital of the whole community by doing this.”

The state covers tuition for participants in the program, but that wasn’t always the case. In the beginning, GAP’s founding five companies footed the entire bill. Back then, Bright Plastics was looking to grow, but the lack of qualified labor threatened to stunt its plans.

“I couldn’t find highly skilled hourly technical people,” Poteat said. “And it slowed our expansion down, and I was like, ‘There’s got to be a better way to make sure we have talent available and ready when something like this comes up again.’ So, I was looking for a solution, not knowing exactly what it was, when I heard about the youth apprenticeship model and how we might apply it. And, it was like, OK, that’s a solution for creating a talent pipeline consistently.”

Five years later, finding full-time employees remains “pretty much impossible,” and the company has never had so many unfilled positions, Poteat said.

But Poteat said GAP has made inroads in educating school staff and the community about the opportunities blue-collar careers offer.

“We break through that barrier; [the] college-for-all mentality is probably the one of the greatest veils over people’s eyes,” Poteat said.

The push saddles “kids with all this debt, and they have to go work in a fast-food restaurant,” he said.

GAP’s message that vocational training is a path to well-paid, satisfying jobs is resonating, and the program is growing. Thirty-four employers have signed on, offering a range of career tracks, including supply chain logistics, cybersecurity and advanced manufacturing – the path Fuller took. The companies are involved in a range of industries, including heating and air conditioning, automotive repairs and tire sales, design and engineering, health care, and financial services.

For would-be participants, the process starts with an application, filed in January. They’re evaluated based on a multitude of factors, including attendance, their interest in science and the ability to work as part of a team. Grades are important, too – Poteat said many participants are at or near the top of their classes but come from families that simply can’t afford college.

In early spring, all eligible students are invited to GAP’s Invitational – a four-night gauntlet of testing and job interviews, where students meet with representatives from participating companies. From there, they select the companies that most interest them, and GAP uses their lists to match the students with companies and career paths they find appealing. Over six weeks in the summer, the students get one more extended “job interview,” Poteat said – a pre-apprenticeship program working at the company they’ve selected, coupled with two college classes, to make sure they can handle the load.

Most GAP students can.

“Community college retention rates are just pitiful. For a program, they’re less than 50 percent. You compare that to an apprenticeship model, where it’s over 90 percent. The college loves us because they can count on enrollment through the whole thing,” Poteat said.

Of the 130 or so students who participate in the Invitational, about 100 stick with the program. The students recognize companies’ investment in them, and that creates a mutual loyalty, Poteat said. Sponsoring companies look to help students even if they are struggling with issues, such as financial problems; Poteat describes the relationship as “having another family looking after you.”

Fuller said he was interested in Bright Plastics from the beginning, and he is looking forward to continuing to move up in the company.

“It was a smaller company. It was more close-knit, which is something I really like. I’m not too fond of really big companies. Todd and I, when we first spoke, we kind of hit it off. We both realized that we can both benefit from each other,” Fuller said.

When he was an apprentice, Fuller said older employees took him under their wing. Their friendship -plus events for apprentices – have helped him learn about how to be professional in this, his first job. Now, he’s doing the same with Bright Plastics’ latest classes of newcomers.

In his first year as a full-time employee, Fuller has advice for younger apprentices and students eyeing the program: “You can’t always think that you can do everything well on your own because a lot of this you have to rely on others for your success.”

By Karen Hanna

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