Training: Caterpillar’s Training Program Reaches Down to High School for Manufacturing Talent

You’re world leader in heavy earthmoving equipment and you relocate a skid-steer assembly plant from Mexico to a small town in North Carolina. You build a new building, basically doubling the size of your existing campus, and suddenly you need welders—a lot of welders. How do you handle it?

“We recognized a need for a sustainable pipeline of talent,” says Korey Coon, lead human resources manager for Caterpillar’s Building Construction Products Division, “not just for when we opened the new facility, but also for the future.”

Looking around for an innovative way to keep that pipeline fed, Coon developed the Caterpillar Youth Apprenticeship program, partnering with Central Carolina Junior College, area high schools, and North Carolina’s Career and College Promise program. Junior and senior high school students take tuition-free welding related classes at the junior college three days a week and work/train at Caterpillar’s Sanford, NC plant two days a week during the school year and up to 32 hours a week during summer vacation. At the completion of the two-year program, the students have earned a welding certificate from the college, a certificate from the North Carolina Department of Labor that they have completed the youth apprenticeship, and will have accumulated 80 hours in Caterpillar’s Accelerated Training Program, applicable to an adult apprenticeship if they choose to go to work at Caterpillar.

“We knew we couldn’t just rely on the available workforce,” says Coon. “And we wanted to start building our talent pipeline at an earlier age than is typical, so the kids recognize early that this is a viable career. The Apprenticeship Program is a way to establish our employment brand before they’re even out of high school.” Although Caterpillar doesn’t normally accept new-hires under 18, under the state’s apprenticeship program, 16- and 17-year-olds are allowed to work at the facility. “We can’t expect our education and government partners to do this for us. We have to be proactive and tell them what we need and be willing to invest in it ourselves.”

The candidate selection process is designed to be rigorous. Students are screened by teachers and guidance counselors, have to complete an application, provide references, and work with their school to arrange for the tuition-free junior college courses. Half the graduates of Caterpillar’s initial cohort of youth apprentices have gone to work for Caterpillar at the Sanford plant. Once they’re onboard fulltime, Caterpillar tracks their work/training hours—they will need another year or two to complete their adult apprenticeship. So far, two graduates are headed into the company’s journeyman program.

“It’s not easy to suddenly have 10 to 15 high school students show up ready to work. We had to be sure that the work was appropriate for the kids’ skill set and training, and we had to be flexible because they’re not working a normal shift.” Coon is quick to point out that this is value-added work the kids are doing. “We had to make some adjustments, but the operations leaders are just as passionate as I am about making this work. We all look at it as an investment.”

The program is designed to be flexible. Participants can expand and grow with it, depending on their personal goals and Caterpillar’s personnel needs. Caterpillar also offers tuition reimbursement, making it possible for interested apprenticeship program graduates to study for an engineering degree while they’re working as welders.

What do the kids think about their experience? Antonio Murchison from Southern Lee High School says he signed up for two reasons. “I’ve always heard Caterpillar is a great place to make a career. I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do, but I felt this program would be a great opportunity.”

One of the things he liked was working at the plant: “I’m a hands-on type, and the-on-job training made it easier for me to gain the skills I needed to be successful.” He also liked working with the different types of people he met on the job, and found the hardest part was developing a schedule to get his high school homework done while he attended the college classes and worked at the plant. Murchison is excited to learn more about the manufacturing business and plans to go back to college for engineering or business management.

You can almost see Coon smiling. “One of the big selling points for the parents was how much discipline this program brought to their kids. Getting up at six in the morning in the summer to go to work really taught them a lot about maturity and responsibility.” And from the company’s perspective, the program gave them a heads-up on what would be expected of them as fulltime employees.

For Coon, the key to success with this kind of program is a committed industry partner that views the program as an investment in the communities in which it operates, and just as important, the collaboration between partners. “The schools are benefiting. The community college has been able to expand its welding program and increase outreach to the high school population, and the state likes the technical training provided to kids before they graduate from high school. From the community standpoint, it’s great to see not only the students and the schools getting excited, but also the parents being supportive about having their kids involved.” Murchison says he learned about the program from his ROTC instructor and guidance counselor, and through word of mouth from his friends—the acid test for teenagers (which seems to confirm the excitement Coons says the program has generated in the community).

Murchison comes from a manufacturing background; both his stepfather and grandmother have worked in industry. His father does HVAC work and is in the process of developing his own business. “What makes this program so appealing is that you’re learning skills you’ll need for your career while you’re still going to school, and you get paid for the work you’re doing. I would have been interested regardless of the pay, but it’s an added bonus.”

Based on the success of the program at the Sanford plant, Caterpillar has developed a similar program for assemblers at its Clayton, NC facility. Because the amount of on-the-job training is less for a Caterpillar assembler than a welder, the program has been structured as a pre-apprenticeship and runs for a year and a half. The components are similar to the Sanford model: free tuition, a certificate from Johnston Community College and the North Carolina Department of Commerce (program oversight has shifted from the state Department of Labor to the Department of Commerce), approximately 640 hours of on-the-job training, work experience while in high school (16 hours a week while school is in session and 28 hours a week during the summer), and preferred opportunity for employment at Caterpillar.

“If we’re doing our jobs right, we have to continue to look at ways to innovate and provide a qualified workforce for the future,” says Coon. “You can’t do it alone, which is what makes the partnership model so powerful.”