The Dual Enrollment program at Georgia Northwestern Technical College and Catoosa County’s From HERE to CAREER! College and Career Academy has cemented a partnership with an area manufacturer of concrete reinforcement fiber.
Sika Corp.’s Chattanooga plant makes concrete reinforcement fibers from polypropylene. Plant leadership said they participate in GNTC’s internship program to nurture the upcoming workforce and to provide a community service.
Georgia’s Dual Enrollment program allows qualified high school students in GNTC’s nine-county service area to maximize their education and career training by taking courses that earn college and high school credit at the same time for free. The program includes the opportunity to earn a Technical Certificate of Credit before graduation.
“We believe the earlier the technical training begins, the more opportunities these students have – even if they don’t go into a technical career,” said Mark Bradford, maintenance manager for Sika Corp.
Sika’s two interns completed Catoosa County’s From HERE to CAREER! Academy’s mechatronics pathway, graduated from high school last year and are working towards their associate degrees in Industrial Systems Technology through GNTC. Zaniel Carroll, 18, went to work for Sika as a maintenance intern about a year ago while 19-year-old Connor Hutchins was hired four months ago; they both work 28 hours per week and attend classes two nights a week, the interns said.
Their mechatronics education equipped them to respond to electrical, mechanical and automation repair calls and to perform preventative maintenance, Mr. Bradford said.
“Most businesses are willing to teach the knowledge for the job but also recognize that many people entering the workforce today lack soft skills, such as work ethics, interview skills, arriving on time and being prepared to work,” Mr. Bradford said. “I’ve been telling businesses for over 20 years that they need to be involved in the local school system and training at technical colleges because that will give them access to the best and brightest graduates.”
Mr. Bradford and representatives of other local industries serve on the Catoosa County College and Career Academy’s advisory committee, where they help educators to develop the curriculum and learning objectives that will prepare students for the workforce and to ensure a smoother transition between retirees and younger, less experienced employees.
“Schools emphasized traditional trade skills less for a while but seem to be returning to them now,” Sika plant manager Charlie Stiner said. “We knew there was a shortcoming of potential employees in those areas. We want to grow and continue this collaboration with the career academy as long as we can.”
Sika’s upper management was convinced to offer the part-time internships after learning Mr. Carroll and Mr. Hutchins already possessed six technical certificates apiece, which demonstrated their dedication to their education at the high school and college levels, Mr. Stiner said.
“A lot of industrial maintenance people today do not have the certifications these two interns already have,” Mr. Bradford said.
“GNTC understands about the aging workforce,” Mr. Bradford said. “The average age for a maintenance person is in their 50s, and knowing we are training the next generation who will fill those jobs makes me feel better about retiring.”
Mr. Stiner called the interns’ soft skills “terrific” and characterized their sense of teamwork as superior to that of many job “applicants who just walk in off the street.”
Mr. Carroll said he plans to continue working at Sika while he finishes school and earns his bachelor’s degree in either business or mechatronics; Mr. Hutchins said he also plans to continue working at Sika through college and then potentially to work his way up within the company.
“Going to a rigorous class built for a trade is a good maturity test. I’m not only learning skills from older employees, but also improving my ability to talk to people whatever their age,” Mr. Hutchins said. “That’s one of the most crucial parts of the whole career academy. Without the preparation I gained at the career academy, I would have messed up my interview for this job.”
Mr. Bradford described the students’ internship as having no end date.
“Our goal is for them to complete their education and to provide the flexibility that allows them to continue,” he said. “When they complete that, they can become full-time employees at Sika Chattanooga or another Sika facility.”
Sika will absorb them as full-time employees to fill future maintenance staff vacancies and then get more student interns through the career academy, Mr. Stiner said.
“I think Zaniel and Connor are mentors to other employees here,” Sika plant manager Charlie Stiner said. “They’re here, have great attitudes and are ready to learn.”
All four praised the career academy and urged high school students to consider that option.
“The program gives the opportunity for students in high school classes to explore different fields without wasting time and money,” Mr. Carroll said. “It opens a lot of doors.”
Participating in the career academy and internship boosted his confidence, gave him a sense of direction and helped him edge out college graduates lacking relevant work experience, he said.
Mr. Hutchins added, “Even giving it a chance might change your life.”
“Any company that considers working with students needs to understand that while flexibility in scheduling is essential, willing mentors are the most important component,” Mr. Bradford explained, pointing out that those willing to take the time to work with interns and to share their knowledge are often the most effective mentors.