Tacoma teens get a jump on manufacturing careers with new apprentice program

Raquel Taijito is looking forward to learning how to use a lathe soon. The Stadium High School sophomore is eager to soak up any knowledge she can on her path toward employment as a machinist.

Taijito is one of 15 Tacoma Public Schools students — and the only female student — who will form the first cohort of a new apprenticeship program that will train students to work for local manufacturers.

While they learn, they’ll earn money along with high school and college credits.

Tacoma apprentices, their employers, Gov. Jay Inslee and others took part in a ceremony launching the program last weekat Pacific Machine Inc. in Lakewood.

Ceremonies will take place later this month in Yakima, and a company from Snohomish County has joined the program.

Taijito, who will be working for Tool Gauge in Tacoma, said she is eager to start earning money so she can save for a college education. She’s not concerned about getting into a field traditionally dominated by males.

“I don’t look at gender,” she said. “I would rather focus on my skill level and my dependability. A job is a job. It doesn’t necessarily depend on your gender.”

The program is an effort to get young people into the manufacturing business early, said Jim Tschimperle, owner of Pacific Machine and a member of the Center for Advanced Manufacturing Puget Sound (CAMPS).

With many older workers in the field reaching retirement age, Tschimperle said, there’s a pressing need to augment the work force.

“The program will train students and help manufacturers fill the gap,” he said. Six Tacoma-area companies are participating.

Students learn so-called soft job skills — such as the importance of showing up on time. They work alongside mentors in the shop to learn technical skills needed in the manufacturing field.

The statewide Aerospace Joint Apprenticeship Committee, a state-funded nonprofit organization, interviews and screens prospective participants for the program.

Students attend high school, along with once-a-week apprenticeship classes that teach them technical and general job skills. They also work part time for their mentor employers, earning the state minimum wage to start.

By the time they finish the two-year program, they will have completed the equivalent of one year of a four-year adult apprenticeship. That means they’ll be on their way to journeyman status a year earlier than had they started an apprenticeship after high school or technical college graduation.

Stadium High student Sam Yost outlined his typical day as an apprentice.

It begins at 6:30 a.m. with jazz band, followed by a full school day. Several days a week, after school, he works a four-hour shift at Quality Stamping and Machining in Sumner. He clocks a total of 16 hours a week at work. Once a week, he carpools to Lincoln High School, where he joins other students for AJAC class.

“It’s a long day, but I’m adjusting to it,” he said. “It’s an unprecedented experience for high school students.”

The state Department of Labor & Industries worked with industry to develop regulations that allow high school-age youths to work in manufacturing, said Jody Robbins, apprenticeship program manager for the agency.

That means some equipment — metal-cutting machines, for example — are off limits for apprentices to operate as part of production. But mentors can show them how it’s done.

Safety guidelines, as well as wages and working conditions, are spelled out in agreements with manufacturers, Robbins said.

The new apprentices are poised for success, said John Page, director of Career and Technical Education for Tacoma schools.

“You have to have grit, self-confidence and a level of skills to convince an employer to hire you,” he said. “They are all leaders, or they wouldn’t be here.”

Inslee called the high school apprenticeship program a “big idea” and a “bold innovation” that will keep the state moving ahead as a leader in advanced manufacturing.

“These students are going to lead the way for thousands that are going to follow,” the governor said.

Debbie Cafazzo: 253-597-8635, @DebbieCafazzo