Matt Brown wasn't thinking a lot about his future when he attended a meeting about Apprenticeship 2000 at Providence High. He was a junior at the time and was seeking information on the four-year program that offers on-the-job technical training along with a free education.
"I started hearing all these ideas of what my life could be," Brown said. "Then I thought, 'What's the catch?'"
There wasn't one. The open house showed Brown and his parents about the technical training partnership, which is offered to high school juniors and seniors. Participants attend school while being paid to train at one of five partner companies. Students who complete the program will earn an associate's degree in mechatronics engineering technology from Central Piedmont Community College free of charge, a journeyman's card and, most importantly, a career.
"They told us to bring our questions and 'really grill us' about the program," he said. "I visited different companies and all were offering benefits, a starting salary and a guaranteed job. … It's like a four-year-long job shadow that pays you and gives you a jump at the end."
Brown was invited to join the program at PFAFF Molds L.P. and began his training that summer. Now 22, he is a journeyman mold-maker at the company, which designs and manufactures body-sealing molds for automotive companies such as Tesla and BMW. He also works with PFAFF's apprenticeship program.
The partner companies are looking for motivated students to become highly skilled employees with the technical skills needed in their workforce. Stefan Bareth, PFAFF's technical operation manager, said apprentices are valuable employees and that it is important to have that people pipeline.
"We try with every student to find what they're good at, to find that right fit with the company," Bareth said. "If they say, 'I want to do this, I'm willing to listen,' that's half the battle and we teach them everything they need to know. If the technician is successful, the company is successful."
Brown said he had always enjoyed his classes at Providence but was mechanically minded. His strengths were in math and problem-solving, as well as working with people. When he accompanied his older sister on her prospective college tours, he began to think a less traditional route might be better for him.
"College looked like a fun place to hang out for four years," he said, "but I didn't think it was where I'd find what I wanted to do for the rest of my life."
Brown found his niche at PFAFF, where he split his days between taking classes and working at the company. He had to make some sacrifices – summers off, spring break and playing soccer his senior year for Providence – but said he recognized that the apprenticeship was worth the sacrifice. He finished his associate's degree in 2016 with no debt – PFAFF paid for tuition, books and his time in class. He is currently working toward a four-year degree in supply-chain management, for which his tuition is paid.
"I probably wouldn't be looking at this area if I weren't here," Brown said. "These experiences let me see what a project manager does and the degree will help me move within the company."
PFAFF is based in Germany and has clients around the world. Brown will receive more training in Germany in the future, but he is currently learning Spanish through a company-sponsored program for better communication with key customers in Mexico and South America.
Brown said he encourages students to consider an apprenticeship program because it gives them different options and the opportunity to grow as an individual. He said a lot of students only look at what they think they're supposed to do.
"Their friends are going to college, so they think they have to go to college, or they think they've got to be a doctor," he said. "Look at what makes you happy and don't be afraid to take the road less traveled."