Apprentice at work at Spartanburg Community College

Teens selected as Tognum apprentices

Caleb Dyer is 16 and never anticipated at that age he could see a real future in front of him.

It’s not likely the Aiken County junior in high school had known anything about Dan Rather – the longtime CBS newscaster now with cable channel, which can be found on Atlantic Broadband and other venues.

Recently, Rather presented an hourlong program that featured Tognum, the large German company that makes diesel engines there as well as in Aiken. Dyer was featured on that program.

He is one of five juniors from the Aiken County Career and Technology Center. In recent months, Dyer has served in an apprenticeship program at Tognum, spending several hours a month getting training there with his friends.

“It’s something I never felt before,” Dyer said. “They care about you and want you to make it in the world.”

The Career Center director, Brooks Smith, said Tognum’s approach, long established in Germany, provides a crucial alternative to the four-year college education.

“We certainly support all students that have the aspiration of a four-year degree,” Smith said. “But you also have to look at reality. Bridgestone brought 800 new jobs here, and Tognum has 300 at a time where there is

a resurgence of manufacturing. For hundreds of jobs, a four-year degree is not the requirement for a large percentage of those jobs.”

Dyer and the other apprentices – Kiley Jones, Tyler Temples, Brandon Henslee and Dustin Swygert – were among those who applied at the Career Center for those positions. They were accepted after completing tests and interviews.

During the television program, Tognum America Vice President Joerg Klisch explained how the plant produces 12 giant engines that may start at $250,000 and reach $3 million. In one aspect, the engines are Swiss watches.

“The precision is down to one micron,” Klisch said on the broadcast. “It’s basically the preciseness of a hair, a human hair.”

What is required on these jobs is mechanical aptitude and skills, Smith said. That’s the type of educational opportunity the Career Center provides.

“These are not textile jobs,” he said. “They’re more high-tech, and the reality is that these are high-paying jobs. We’ll have 11 students out at Tognum next year. When they complete this program, they’ll be offered a starting job at $32,000 a year. A lot of people with four-year degrees would love that.”

The major component of this concept is that Tognum is looking for specific skills. The apprentices take Stan Johnson’s HVAC class at the Career Center. When the apprentice program got started, Tognum personnel added worktables and equipment.

“I was told, ‘This is what we want you to teach,’” Johnson said. “I got the curriculum, and all the other students are benefiting from it. This is a great opportunity for the apprentices.”

Four of the students at Johnson’s class one day said they do remain interested in post-secondary education as well as skilled jobs. For now, they’re enjoying the chance to rotate to different areas at Tognum.

Germany has a formal entrenched program in its schools. By the time a child is 10, he is identified as a likely future college student. Most of the remaining children eventually are moved into manufacturing training and can later earn good salaries.

Rather interviewed Robert Schwartz, a Harvard University professor and the academic dean of the Graduate School of Education. He acknowledged his concern that Germany starts directing children’s paths at the age of 10.

Still, Germany’s unemployment rate for young people is half that of the United States’ rate. But the U.S. isn’t going to simply transplant a version of that philosophy to the U.S., Schwartz said. America needs more than one set of institutions to help young people become successful, he said.

Tyler Temples is enjoying the skills and knowledge he’s learning at Tognum and plans to use them. Yet a four-year degree is also important to him.

“We were the lucky ones,” he said.