STANLEY, N.C.—Nicholas Kwiatkowski gave his younger brother, Lukas, his first job. Lukas later returned the favor, showing Nick a path to a career. The brothers followed very different routes to the same destination: the Blum Inc. factory in Stanley, N.C., and the Apprenticeship 2000 program.
Lukas signed up for Apprenticeship 2000—which develops the technical skills needed for careers in high-tech manufacturing—while attending East Gaston High School in Mount Holly, N.C. That’s the usual entry point for most Apprenticeship 2000 students: Charlotte-area high schools work closely with the program’s recruiters to identify promising prospects for the apprenticeship.
Nick followed a much different path. He decided not to pursue further education when he graduated from high school in 2012. Instead, he managed an Italian restaurant for more than six years during and after high school, and hired Lukas to help out.
“I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do when I graduated from high school” in 2012, said Nick, now 23. “I didn’t think it was viable to go to school, waste money, pile up student debt and not know what I wanted to do.”
But when Nick learned more from his brother about Blum—a manufacturer of high-tech latches, hinges and slide components for cabinetry—he decided it was time for a change. Nick applied for a job when Lukas told him Blum was looking for a press operator. He ended up applying three times before Blum hired him, with a recommendation from his younger brother.
“I had to talk to some people to help get him a job,” said Lukas, 22. “I said, ‘He’s a good worker. Let’s give him a shot.’”
Nick became a team leader within his first months after starting in May 2016. He had higher goals. As a regular employee, his prospects for advancement were limited, Nick said. But if he could get into the Apprenticeship 2000 program, the possibility of promotions and higher pay in future years would be greatly enhanced.
Nick had to be employed for a year before he could apply for the program. He was accepted into the program in 2017, a year after Lukas completed his apprenticeship.
Apprenticeship 2000 was started by Blum in 1995, in conjunction with Daetwyler Corp. of Huntersville, N.C. The program’s goal is to offer technical career opportunities to high school students (and some exceptions, like Nick) and employment after graduation. Over the years, other Charlotte-area companies have joined the program, including Ameritech Die & Mold, Chiron and Pfaff.
The program is the only one of its kind in the United States to require 8,000 hours of training and education, including 6,400 hours at the employer companies and 1,600 hours of classes at Central Piedmont Community College. At graduation, an apprentice receives an associate degree in mechatronics engineering and is awarded a journeyman’s certificate by the North Carolina Department of Commerce.
Andreas Thurner, the apprenticeship manager at Blum, said Blum and other member companies are strong believers in the apprenticeship model, which has been used for decades in Europe. Blum, based in Austria, has had a presence in North Carolina since 1979. Its CEO is the product of the company’s apprenticeship program in Europe, Thurner said.
“Our job is to build the next strong workforce,” said Thurner. “You can have the best equipment in the world, but it’s worthless if you don’t have the right people on it.”
Blum’s financial commitment to the program demonstrates how important it is to the company’s culture. The Stanley factory, located about 20 miles northwest of Charlotte, has $1.8 million in equipment in its training area, and three full-time trainers.
Thurner said that each apprentice represents a $175,000 commitment from the company. That includes pay and benefits for the apprentices’ four years of work and study.
With that level of investment, Thurner works hard to recruit and identify the right kind of students for the program. He starts with introductory sessions at the local high schools that are involved in the program. Interested students are then invited to an open house, and those still interested attend four orientation sessions. At that point, Blum conducts a six-week training session, which combines company training and course work at Central Piedmont. Only after extensive reviews are the final choices made for the apprenticeships.
While an apprenticeship and the commitment it requires might not be right for everyone, “it really is a great alternative for those who are hands-on and smart,” Thurner said.
Nick remembers about 20 people coming to his orientation sessions. Seven were picked for the pre-program training, and six were advanced to the apprenticeship program. Lukas said his orientation class of more than 20 was narrowed down to three who joined the Blum apprenticeship program.
“You do a lot of work, and you have to impress them to select you,” Lukas said.
Thurner said there are currently 17 apprentices in the four-year program at Blum, and 41 overall in the Apprenticeship 2000 program. Since 1995, Blum has graduated 61 apprentices, and Apprenticeship 2000 has produced 164 graduates overall.
And although Blum does not require an apprentice to sign a contract to work for the company, some 75 percent of the apprentices Blum has trained in North Carolina were still with the company five years after graduating, Thurner said.
“We guarantee you employment. We guarantee you a salary of $36,000” at the end of the program, Thurner said. “Who does that? Who pays for your college and then gives them a guaranteed job?”
A similar apprenticeship program in the region, Apprenticeship Charlotte, is also very selective, said Jennifer Herndon, coordinator of workplace learning at Central Piedmont. This year, 85 people applied on the college’s application portal. Thirty-eight applicants advanced to the summer pre-apprentice program, and 20 were selected to continue as apprentices this fall.
Apprenticeship Charlotte member organizations include Cummins Atlantic, Bosch Rexroth, CATS (Charlotte Area Transit Systems), HAWE Hydraulik, Siemens, Groninger and Mecklenberg County. As with the Apprenticeship 2000 program, most of the members of Apprenticeship Charlotte are companies with European roots and deeper experience with the apprentice concept.
“Having the European companies has given us national attention,” said Herndon.
Thurner said he regularly fields inquiries from other companies interested in apprenticeship programs. The queries have come from 15 states, he said. But he added that some public companies balk at the investment required for each apprentice, seeing that as short-term expense rather than considering it, as Blum does, a long-term investment.
The life of an apprentice
For Nick Kwiatkowski, the apprenticeship program means long days. Four days a week, he’s at the Blum factory from 1 p.m. to 11 p.m. He works and trains during those hours, and also puts in some overtime hours to help make up for the reduction in his hourly pay that he accepted to join the apprentice program. On Thursdays, he goes to the Central Piedmont campus in downtown Charlotte for course work from 3 to 6 p.m.
“Who would have thought that I would be looking forward to going to school” on Thursdays, he joked.
“I don’t get very much spare time,” he admitted. “It’s pretty much go to work, come home, go to sleep, wake up and do it again.”
Lukas tells a similar story. He started during high school, splitting time among his school, Blum and Central Piedmont. Later during his apprenticeship, he put in 40 hours each week at Blum and Central Piedmont, and worked another 40 hours for his brother at Geppeto’s, the restaurant Nick managed.
“It’s definitely a challenge,” Lukas said. “There were points when I said, ‘Forget it. I don’t want to do this anymore.’”
Both the work and the training require great attention to detail, the brothers said. And the apprentices are regularly reviewed on their performance.
Thurner issues monthly assessments on each apprentice in eight key areas: quality, job knowledge, efficiency, dependability, initiative, adaptability, cooperation/team ability, and safety/housekeeping. Apprentices with excellent reviews can earn bonuses, he said. Outstanding apprentices also are rewarded with a trip to visit Blum’s facilities in Austria. Lukas made that trip before finishing his apprenticeship and becoming a full-time tool and die specialist at the North Carolina factory.
Despite the long hours and demanding standards in the program, Nick is confident he made the right decision in joining Apprenticeship 2000. He believes in the concept, and he’s certain he’s made the right choice for his career.
“Honestly, I’m surprised not more companies do this,” Nick said. “Hiring outside people with a degree is OK, but why not invest in what you have? If you have employees who are bright and can be trained, why not train them?
“I’m sure there are tons of people out there who would like to have the chance to go through a program like this,” he said.
While he won’t finish the apprenticeship until 2021, he is already starting to think about his options for the future. The choices look good, he said. He could take a guaranteed job at Blum. He would have a credential that could get him employment elsewhere. Or he could continue his education.
“I was pretty excited when I got into the program. Right now, it’s kind of tough with the pay cut. But when I get done, it’s pretty much a career,” he said.
“Maybe one day I would go on” for a bachelor’s degree, he said. “That’s not something out of the grasp for me.”