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On Signing Day, the Future is Bright with Regional Apprenticeships

On May 15, Jonah Gibson, 16, walked into his official Signing Day event. There was a hype video, a catered table with specially-made cookies, extra swag and out-of-town officials who gave speeches. As parents and crowd watched, the high school student inked his name, formally onto the paper.  

The East Ridge High junior is a student-athlete. But the Signing Day was not for athletics or academics. 

Gibson is becoming an apprentice.  

“I was given the opportunity to take this apprenticeship,” he said, “and thought it would be a good opportunity for growth and to do something interesting.” 

Along with nine other area high schoolers from Marion, Sequatchie and Hamilton counties, Gibson formally announced his intent to become a pre-apprentice with Komatsu, the Japanese-owned heavy machinery producer located on Signal Mountain Road.  

“It is basically a state-certified Pre-Apprenticeship Program where local high school career students are given the opportunity to work in our plant for a competitive wage, similar to a work-study program,” said Eric Crosland, Komatu’s general manager.  

The day was “similar to a college sports signing,” Crosland said, as Komatu’s program invites 10 high schoolers into a 10-month pre-apprenticeship program. The students form the third and largest pre-apprenticeship cohort for Komatsu’s local plant. In the past, Komatsu has retained 100% of its pre-apprenticeship cohorts.  

“Our intention with this program is to promote skilled trades education in the local schools and to develop a local talent pipeline that benefits both Komatsu and the community,” Crosland said.  

At East Ridge, Gibson loves working with his hands, enjoys the school’s woodshop and also wrestles – 145 lbs., he said – each afternoon. Not long ago, his coach mentioned the pre-apprenticeship program; Gibson liked the idea, and his coach recommended him. Some 20 students applied, with 10 selected. 

Students can choose four-hour shifts – one in the morning, then class or class, then Komatsu – that pay $15 an hour, Gibson said, who had already taken a tour of the facility. 

“It was really cool, seeing how everything came together,” he said. “A lot of people don’t see how things are made. I will have the insight into how it’s made, and that kind of draws me to it.  

Komatsu’s pre-apprenticeship program can be a model for other regional employers.  

“It is increasingly important for employers to take the lead on workforce development initiatives, in partnership with local school systems and training providers,” said Christina Henderson, the Chamber’s Director of Talent and Development.  

Henderson often hears from employers who can’t find enough workers with technical and needed skills. Apprenticeship programs can be a solution. 

“Youth apprenticeships, or work-based learning programs, provide students with the opportunity to apply what they are learning in the classroom in the workplace,” she said. “Employer-driven programs like Komatsu’s are the best way to address that skills gap.” 

Komatsu’s Signing Day coincided with National Youth Apprenticeship Week. Locally, four companies were selected to each receive $10,000 in Apprenticeships Building America funding to support or grow apprenticeship programs.  

Selected from 20 applicants, the four winning companies demonstrated a commitment to mentoring and innovation.  

“More and more local businesses are discovering the value and, frankly, the competitive advantage that apprenticeships bring to their workforce,” said Walton Robinson, executive director of Apprenticeship Works. “Youth apprenticeships are a phenomenal tool for local businesses.” 

Robinson said apprenticeships often include tax benefits and financial incentives that cover training costs. 

“They yield sky-high employee retention rates,” he said. “Over 90% of apprentices are still with the same company after five years.” 

Robinson’s work is critical and timely. Chattanooga and Hamilton County were recently selected as one of five communities in the US to host an Apprenticeship Innovation Hub, as local stakeholders worked together to form Apprenticeship Works as the local lead entity.  

For Gibson, Signing Day was an invitation to a steady, bright future. Moments before the ceremony began, he looked out at the Komatsu lawn where the heavy machinery marked the entrance.  

“The pride of knowing I helped build that, assemble that with other people,” he said.  

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