Mechatronics Apprentices Move Into Local Workforce

Made in Henderson County (MIHC) Manufacturing Apprenticeship

By Pete Zamplas- Many area students graduating Friday, June 14 face unknowns about their careers let alone entry jobs, but 19 are going into the local workforce thanks to a new mechatronics engineering apprenticeship program.

UPM Raflatac produces labels for various products displayed here at a job fair at BRCC — from wine to dish soap. HR Mgr. Gina Coan is at right. Photo by Pete Zamplas.

The Made in Henderson County (MIHC) Manufacturing Apprenticeship for newly-graduating seniors is an area model — a new venture of the MIHC partnership of industries, Henderson County Public Schools, Blue Ridge Community College, and the Henderson County Partnership for Economic Development.

Meritor, Elkamet, GF Linamar, Continental Automotive Systems and WestRock are the five participating industries. These five are in the Arden-Fletcher industrial belt bridging Buncombe and Henderson counties. They also were part of recent job fairs, such as one at BRCC.

The manufacturers pledge to pay each apprentice a competitive salary during the on-the-job training, then to offer the person a job offer upon completion of the program that formally begins in August.

Students earn a tuition-free Mechatronics Engineering (of electrical and mechanical systems using computers, robots et al) Certificate, dedicating one classroom day per week over three BRCC semesters while working the remainder of the week. The new program is an official North Carolina Apprenticeship, registered with the N.C. Department of Commerce.

These apprentices had athletic-like “signing days” with local industries, spread out last month. This suited 280-pound football lineman Brock McKee of North Knights well. Instead of putting on a college’s jersey, the apprentice symbolically wears a hardhat. The youth receives company souvenirs such as shirts, ballcaps and lunch boxes. Such gear can promote a sense of belonging with the company, and thus teamwork.

North Henderson had the most (11) apprentices signing — with Elkamet, GF Linamar, Meritor, and WestRock. West Henderson had five signing to apprentice with Elkamet and GF Linamar. East had one each signing with Linamar and WestRock. Hendersonville (HHS) also placed two apprentices — one each with Meritor and Linamar.

Russell Hopkin and Zach Filka put on hard hats, after signing as apprentices with GF Linamar and Meritor. Photo by Molly McGowan Gorsuch.

Meritor is a leading supplier of commercial vehicle drivetrain and braking. Its Fletcher facility makes gearing, housings, input shafts, and truck carriers.

Continenal manufactures brake calipers, in Fletcher. GF Linamar opened a facility two years ago in Mills River. Its high-pressure aluminum die-casting and machining produces lightweight powertrain and structural auto parts.

Elkamet’s local plant is in East Flat Rock. The German-based firm produces nylon and polyethylene machinery tanks — plastic (die-shaped) extrusions and roto-molding for vehicles and farm machines.

WestRock in East Flat Rock makes packaging for healthcare, cosmetics, DVDs and other markets.
The apprentices are among 121 Career & Technical Education Scholars. Collectively, they earned 1,756 industry credentials in 2018-19, and averaged 80.9% proficiency on CTE end-of-course tests.

Those who applied for the apprenticeship “participated in a pre-apprenticeship program (tuition free at BRCC) in early April, which involved team building and leadership exercises that contributed to their selection” as apprentices, HCPS Dir. of High Schools Wendy Frye noted.

North Henderson Graduation Coach Sloan Neuburger called her school’s apprenticeship signings “life-changing.” She said students found greater life “purpose,” while taking tech classes at BRCC.
Brittany Brady is Partnership for Economic Development president. “We are so thrilled to have seen such interest in the program” in its first year. “These future apprentices have done everything required of them” and show a “bright future.”

Brittany Brady heads the Henderson County Partnership for Economic Development, a force behind both industrial apprenticeships and the job fair at BRCC. Photo by Pete Zamplas.

The Partnership is also behind a public job fair in BRCC’s Conference Hall on April 30. The Made in Henderson County 2019 Advanced Manufacturing Job Fair had 28 stations of area industrial employers (including those involved with the new apprenticeships) and a few staffing services including some from Asheville. Meritor displayed a 20-pound pinion, a round gear for a truck’s rear axle.

Many high school students went there early, for special training and to make the rounds with prospective hirers as they size each other up.

Ben Fertik found three local plants with internships related to his interest in industrial engineering, and engineering studies at Purdue and UNCC. He prefers auto applications, and helping design large machinery to better perform tasks. Fertik is an alum of HHS then N.C. School of Science and Math in Durham.
Several industry and job placement reps there provided insights to The Tribune about what they look for most in job applicants and what they offer.

UPM Raflatac promotes a “culture of growth” and “continuous improvement” for itself and its nearly 400 employees to move up the ladder, Human Resouces Mgr. Gina Coan said. Operating locally since 1985, Raflatac’s plants are in Fletcher and Mills River. Raflatac develops and produces adhesive labels. College students will be hired for the summer via a staffing agency, and need to handle 50 pounds.

Kimberly-Clark’s Jay Goodrich, a crew leader, said K-C looks for “reliable, motivated people to take pride in the work we do” and “help us grow our business.” He displayed many of the famed non-woven, paper healthcare products which include Kleenex, Scott paper towels, U by Kotex tampons and Huggies and Depend diapers.
Kimberly-Clark is investing a reported $30M to upgrade Berkeley Mills in Hendersonville, and add 14 jobs.

Blue Ridge Metals HR Mgr. Alan Williams said “making a professional impression” helps the applicant. BRM in Fletcher mostly hires production operators of machines, such as high-pressure molding. Entry pay is $13-$15 per hour, he noted. BRM makes cold-formed slugs (blanks) and cold heading quality (CHQ) wire, also finished steering and other auto parts. The company formed in 1988 and has won many quality and delivery awards.
Bold Rock Hard Cider was also represented at the job fair. Operating in Mills River for nearly four years, its output is up to 24,000 liters a day. Bold Rock mainly hires production workers (not taste testers) — who are “hard-working, self-motivated,” “team-driven” and willing to “learn and grow.”

With a low jobless rate nationwide, “we’re in a job seekers’ market” locally, BRM’s Williams said. He said of recruiting at job fairs, “if I get one person, it’s a beautiful day.”

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