High school apprenticeship program puts students on track to a career

On-the-job training combined with classroom work could fill a skilled worker shortage

Even before the pandemic, railroad equipment maker and track servicer Atlantic Track in Memphis faced a hiring challenge: it had plenty of open jobs but couldn’t enough people to fill them. The employee-owned company was finding that as its older workers were retiring, there weren’t enough young people entering the skilled trades, particularly as welders.

The solution was to grow its own talent by creating an apprenticeship program in the local high school district.

(Photo: Atlantic Track)

Atlantic Track Memphis Registered Apprentice Program in Welding is the first state-registered apprentice program in the Shelby County Schools district and its goal is to connect high school students to career pathways within the company. A dozen juniors and seniors are expected to enroll in the inaugural cohort in September.

Students will receive 144 hours of related technical instruction in the classroom, learning about topics such as manufacturing basics, how to use certain tools, and precision measurements, explains Angela Massey, the workforce development and training manager for Atlantic Track. 

To complete the program, the students will get 2,000 hours of hand-on training. “We test them to assess where they are in the classroom, then they will be doing actual on-the-job learning with a journey worker who’s been here and is certified,” explains Massey.

Angela Massey, Atlantic Track workforce development and training manager (Photo: Angela Massey)

The goal, she says, is for the apprentices to get hired into full-time positions at Atlantic Track in Memphis. The company expects to be filling 30 jobs in the next year that will include welders. “If we don’t have jobs here, we have jobs nationwide. We have five manufacturing facilities,” adds Massey.

Students out of high school start at $15 an hour and after 90 days receive full benefits that include a 401(k) savings and investment plan and an employee stock ownership plan. Massey notes there is also a tuition reimbursement plan if employees want to go to college.

A Proven Track Record of Talent Building

Atlantic Track’s training blueprint in Memphis follows an informal apprenticeship program for several students hired out of Shelby Count’s high schools. 21-year-old Aramis Hardy is one of them.

Aramis Hardy, American Track employee (Photo: Aramis Hardy)

He’s now a full-time employee with full benefits, on track to become a journeyman himself, and is slated to attend a training certification program for robotic welding in September.

Hardy says there are not many family-sustaining job opportunities right now in Memphis, where an estimated 27% of the population lives below the poverty line.

His dream in high school was to become a professional football player but considered it a one in a million chance of making it happen.

His Plan B was welding, which turned out to be a great choice for him.

“I took it to heart. I see that I am really making a difference for my community,” he tells WorkingNation. “I’m really happy to be part of it, to be honest.”

The Outlook for a Career in Welding

In terms of nationwide demand, welding is listed among manufacturing middle skills occupations with the highest projected job openings during 2019-2029, according to a report by Deloitte and The Manufacturing Institute.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics also expects welders will be needed to help rebuild the nation’s aging bridges, highways, and buildings.

Welders typically need a high school diploma, or the equivalent of one, along with technical and on-the-job training to get certified. Median pay is roughly $44,000 or $21.25 per hour, according to the BLS.