In his role as a technical training manager for Siemens, Charlotte Works board member Roger Collins is responsible for coordinating the apprenticeship program and all technical training aspects at the facility. He’s no stranger to putting in the work as an apprentice, since he started his own career pathway that way.
We spoke with Collins about how he got his start; why apprenticeships are important to the conversation about economic mobility; and how they can springboard to other opportunities.
Charlotte Works (CW): What was your career pathway to this role?
Roger Collins (RC): My career pathway is a good example for the apprenticeship program. I went through high school when everybody was preaching four-year university. I worked hard enough to get the governor’s seal on my diploma. I did what everyone said, and I went to college. Interestingly enough, my family is an industrial family. My mom worked in a factory, my dad did two tours in Vietnam, and when he came back, he changed his MOS (military occupational specialty) in the Army to machinist. When he left the army, he was working at a local machine shop and worked his way up to shop foreman.
Coincidentally, I graduated from eighth grade, and I’m looking forward to a summer of eating pop tarts and watching cartoons. He had different plans. He pulled me out of bed at 5 a.m. that Monday morning and took me to work with him. They put me on the payroll and cut me a check every week. For the entire summer my job was to care for the machinery in the shop. By the time I graduated, I had a lot of machining skills.
I graduated from high school and went to Old Dominion University in Virginia and got a part-time job at a local shop. I completed one year at Old Dominion and got accepted to the apprenticeship school of Newport News Shipbuilding. That program has been called the Harvard of apprenticeships. I was very proud to graduate from there as a journeyman apprentice. I worked for them for about 10 years, and I was on a track into leadership. But as life takes twists and turns, Phillip Morris came along and offered me a job doubling my salary. At the time, my wife was pregnant with my first child and I thought of all the opportunities I could give her with that job. I took the job and worked with Phillip Morris for 13 years and then they closed the factory here and moved overseas. That was at the height of the recession. I was in maintenance and engineering.
When money started getting tight I decided I better get back to work, so that’s where Siemens came along. They gave me an opportunity as an hourly machinist and I did that for two years. I was approached one day about a promotion into supervision and I accepted that job. I was the supervisor over machining and balance. I did that for a year. Dr. Pam House was the training manager at Siemens at that time and we had just started the apprenticeship program. This was around July 2011. In November 2013, I was recruited into the job as apprenticeship coordinator. I never would have believed that seven years ago when I got on that I would be the apprentice coordinator. I’m also chairman of the North Carolina Apprenticeship Council. I’m co-chair to an advisory board to the U.S. Department of Labor’s office on apprenticeship.
CW: How many apprentices have gone through your program since you’ve been in this role?
RC: We have graduated 15. I have 21 currently. The program is four years, which is 8000 hours; 6400 hours are spent on the factory floor and 1600 hours are spent in school.
CW: How do you think apprenticeships add to the conversation on skills gaps and economic mobility?
RC: I think the apprenticeship is the most successful way to do something. When I look for apprentice candidates, they don’t have to come to the table with years of experience. They just have to have a positive attitude, a desire to rise above what they are and some mechanical aptitude. I can do the rest.
CW: Being in an industry that’s showing projected growth, what do you think the community needs to know about the importance of apprenticeships? What role do you see Charlotte Works playing in getting that message out to the community and making sure people have access to those opportunities?
RC: I think the role of Charlotte Works is as an advocate and intermediary. We get a lot of grant funding, not just from the state but the federal government. Getting the word out, you have [customers] come in every day and explaining that this is a viable option. We pay for tuition and books to send you to college. One of the major hurdles is college readiness. Most apprenticeship programs are geared around either a two-year degree or a certificate from a community college. There are certain things that need to be met before you can enter that. So, I think readiness for the apprenticeships is a hurdle that we need to look at overcoming.
CW: What are participants who complete your apprenticeship equipped to do?
RC: In my registration for the apprenticeship I have three job titles, and I’m getting ready to add a fourth. The first, and what we employ the most, is computer numerically controlled machining or computer integrated machining. The second one is mechatronics. It’s a marriage of mechanic and electronic systems. The job that one of those individuals would do is to maintain our equipment on the factory floor. The third is industrial maintenance and it’s for our incumbent workers, who for whatever reason are not equipped or ready, or because of family issues that they cannot go to the community college. We have related instruction that we give on site. After they complete that training and so much time on the factory floor, then they get a journeyman certification. They won’t have a certificate and it’s not a degree program. The one I’m getting ready to write is a mechanical technician.
CW: What else is important for people to know about apprenticeships?
RC: One of the questions that I get is, “are apprenticeships hard to get into?” That’s not the case at all. If you have a desire to learn and a good attitude, then that’s 90 percent of the battle. Having soft skills, the ability to communicate verbally, and in written form, will really go a long way. Those are the soft skills that really make or break a person. I think that a lot of people have these lofty goals about making millions of dollars right out of college. If you get real and understand that it’s going to take hard work, you can really make a good living in manufacturing. I think the average manufacturer in the United States makes about $77,000 a year including benefits.
I’d also like to add that another preconceived notion about apprenticeship is that it’s an end. You reach a point where you graduate, get a job and consider a career. That’s not true. You have the opportunity to utilize tuition reimbursement funds and continue your education. I highly encourage my apprentices to do so. About two-thirds of them that have graduated are still going to college trying to get an engineering degree. So, my message about apprenticeship is that it’s not an end; it’s a springboard into any direction that you’d like to go. I chose leadership, but it’s the first step towards an engineering career. It’s a beginning not an end.
Part of the Careers4All strategy includes ensuring all youth and young adults are career ready. The initiative increases funding for Career Technical Education certifications and apprenticeship models.