Nick Heibel

Nick Heibel welds at Washington Metal Fabricators where he works through the Youth Registered Apprenticeship program with the Four Rivers Career Center. Heibel, 18, is a senior at Union High School. Submitted Photo.

With state Reps. Jeff Porter and Aaron Griesheimer in attendance, 28 teens from Franklin County high schools will be hired by local companies in a Feb. 26 public event.

The signing day follows months of work by the students in apprenticeships, ranging from engineering to construction to auto care at 24 companies, including Washington Metal Fabricators and Plaza Motors-Mercedes.

To land these jobs, the teens have divided up their school days to incorporate paid, on-site training through the Four Rivers Career Center’s (FRCC) Youth Registered Apprenticeship program affiliated with 11 school systems across the county. The program launched in summer 2020, and there are currently 40 students enrolled.

“These are the kids who are going to change the trajectory of the workforce,” FRCC Internship Coordinator Cynthia Walker said.

Walker called the students “smart,” “quick learners” and “extremely coachable,” but notably, she said, they are needed within their industries.

“The skills gap is at a critical level right now,” she said.

About half of all manufacturing and skilled trade employers in the state are facing a shortage in staff, according to the Department of Higher Education and Workforce Development’s 2019 report. That number gets closer to 60 percent in non-metro areas.

The industries need the younger generation to fill posts as a large portion of the workforce retires, too, Walker said. About one-quarter of all manufacturing employees in the U.S. are 55 or older, according to the United Census Bureau.

“These young men and young women, they’re our future,” Walker said.

Meet the Class

Michael Wayne, a Pacific High School junior, had known for two years he wanted to become a mechanic before taking on his apprenticeship with Mercedes-Benz in Creve Coeur.

“Well, 110 percent, I’m glad that I got this job that no normal 17-year-old would have,” he said. “Usually that’s what goes through my mind. Especially with working on these cars and how expensive they are, it’s kind of mind boggling.”

Since beginning his internship in December, Wayne typically spends the first half of his day learning at the FRCC and via virtual classes. From 3 to 8 p.m. four days a week, he is dropping transmissions, conducting oil changes or learning to run car diagnostics by watching his co-workers.

Wayne called himself a “hands-on learner,” which is why this program works so well for him. 

Nick Heibel, a senior at Union High School, used the same term to describe himself.

“You can tell me something 1,000 times in a book, and I will never remember it. You show me one time, and I’ll remember it forever,” he said. “I’m pretty sure a lot of kids that are going into the industry, or just any workforce or anything that involves labor, they’re probably going to be hands-on learners.”

Heibel, 18, is an apprentice welder at Washington Metal Fabricators. He said he has wanted to be a welder since he was 8.

Getting a Slot

Only the top students in the FRCC get apprenticeships, Walker said. They need to be at least 16, have a 95 percent attendance rate or better and maintain a 2.5 GPA minimum, among other requirements.

Heibel and Wayne each work about 20 hours a week. Heibel earns $15 an hour, having been given a $1.50 raise after only a month, and Wayne makes $13.50 an hour.

After graduating, Wayne hopes to continue working for Mercedes-Benz. Heibel will move on to the American Welding Academy, where he is enrolled in a course beginning June 1.

Washington Metal Fabricators President Harlen Meyer said he would love for FRCC students to work for him full-time after graduation. But if they don’t, he understands. While the industry as a whole is in need of skilled employees, the apprenticeship program affects more than his company’s retention rate.

“It’s about educating and training the country; not about educating and training for us,” he said, “and that made a whole lot of sense to me.”