Earn while you learn: Apprenticeships help Columbus employers narrow the job skills gap

How Oneda Corporation works with apprentices to set them up for future employment

Aaron Henderson, a Columbus Technical College student apprenticing at Oneda, talks about his experiences. Heather Hollstein, a coordinator at Oneda, talks about how the apprenticeships work for trainers and trainees.
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Aaron Henderson, a Columbus Technical College student apprenticing at Oneda, talks about his experiences. Heather Hollstein, a coordinator at Oneda, talks about how the apprenticeships work for trainers and trainees.

Aaron Henderson initially didn’t want to follow in his father’s footsteps as a machinist. But as the 2013 Harris County High School graduate learned more about the job, he figured, “It looks cool. I’ll give it a shot. And it turns out that I really love it.”

That opportunity for Henderson to work in the tool and die department at the Oneda Corporation’s facility in Columbus came courtesy of the state’s version of the U.S. Department of Labor’s Registered Apprenticeship.

The “earn while you learn” program through the Technical College System of Georgia was implemented in 2016-17 at eight institutions, including Columbus Technical College.

Columbus Tech and the Muscogee County School District also work together to offer an apprenticeship program.

Area colleges, high schools, students and businesses are increasingly seeing the benefits of apprenticeships, which help address a regional skills gap by providing well-trained workers.

The partnership Columbus Tech and MCSD have with Pratt & Whitney’s aircraft engine center in Midland started apprenticeships 10 years ago, when six of Columbus Tech’s approximately 20 students in the Certified Manufacturing Specialist program, including some dual-enrollment MCSD students, worked at P&W.

Since then, more than half of the approximately 400 CMS students at Columbus Tech have apprenticed with local companies, the majority at P&W and others at Oneda and Gildan (formerly Swift Spinning). About 100 of them have secured full-time employment with one of the participating employers, said Jamie Loyd, Columbus Tech’s vice president for economic development.

“After successfully completing STEM-related, entry-level manufacturing courses, the students are given an incredible opportunity to demonstrate their skills with a world-class employer,” he said. “This initiative has resulted in a win-win situation for all involved.”

Loyd added, “For Georgia high school students, financial aid takes care of the associated costs.”

High school students dually enrolled in Columbus Tech’s CMS program can earn 11 hours of college credit. After completing the CMS program, which usually takes one semester, they are eligible to apply for an apprenticeship. High school apprentices work about 19 hours per week.

All of the apprenticeship programs help address a challenge to the local economy: narrowing the job skills gap.

Aaron Henderson, a Columbus Technical College student apprenticing at Oneda, smiles while holding a piece of metal he just worked on with a laser on Wednesday, April 10, 2019, in Columbus, Ga. Miranda Daniel

In a 2017 workforce assessment for the Greater Columbus Chamber of Commerce, analysts for Avalanche Consulting of Austin, Texas, wrote, “From a purely quantitative perspective, Greater Columbus appears well positioned to deliver the talent necessary for local businesses to thrive. Still, the question remains: Is local talent production aligned by skill?”

That question is a concern nationwide. Two-thirds of employers say they can’t find qualified candidates for their job openings, according to a 2017 report by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation. As a result, says a 2018 study by Deloitte and the Manufacturing Institute, 2.4 million jobs might remain vacant during the next decade, potentially costing the economy $2.5 trillion.

In its executive summary, Avalanche wrote, “While the economic resiliency of the local economy has helped Greater Columbus avoid the destructive forces that ravaged many communities during economic downturns, such stability has come at a price. During more economically dynamic periods, job growth within Greater Columbus has been modest. As a result, total employment within Greater Columbus has remained largely unchanged since 2001. Nationwide, employment has increased nearly 10 percent during this period.”

But the consulting firm is optimistic about the outlook. It projects Greater Columbus to create nearly 1,000 jobs annually through 2026, compared to the average of less than 600 per year from 2011-16. And with the Baby Boomer Generation increasing the number of retirements, an additional 1,200 local job openings are expected per year due to such turnover, according to the assessment.

“With Greater Columbus on the cusp of its greatest level of job growth in at least a decade, developing an abundant and skilled workforce will be critical in ensuring greater economic vibrancy throughout the region,” the report says.

The local postsecondary education institutions have improved their ability to fulfill that need. In 2015, they awarded nearly 3,600 certificates and degrees — a record for the region — and the number of postsecondary degrees increased 20 percent from 2011-16, according to the assessment.

During the next decade, according to the Avalanche assessment, approximately 40 percent of local job openings will require some level of postsecondary education.

Apprenticeships are helping to fulfill those requirements.

“It works”

Oneda, a precision metal-stamping manufacturer, employs nearly 100 workers at the Corporate Ridge Industrial Park in east Columbus. Most of Oneda’s customers are in the automotive industry.

Apprenticeships have been so successful at Oneda, said Heather Hollstein, the company’s training and staff development coordinator, a majority of the 10 employees in its tool and die shop have been apprentices.

“It works,” she said. “We’re able to ensure they’re getting the schooling they need and we can tailor them to our company’s needs as well.”

Oneda had its own apprenticeship program in Columbus for students who went to college full-time and worked part-time. But program officials realized that schedule wasn’t ideal for everyone.

Now, after Oneda joined the state’s Registered Apprenticeship program in 2017, apprentices can choose to work full-time and attend college part-time. Student costs not covered by the Georgia HOPE Scholarship and federal aid, such as books and tools, are covered by the state, Hollstein said.

“They get to go to school for free,” she said. “… Partnering with Columbus Technical College and developing a second potential option for the apprentices gives them the option as to how they want to tackle their schooling and life responsibilities.”

And they get to earn a paycheck at the same time. The hourly wage in Oneda’s Tool and Die department ranges from $9 to $10 an hour for junior apprentices (those in high school) to a maximum of around $30 an hour for lead machinists, Hollstein said.

Average annual wages of $52,000 ($25 an hour) for the approximately 250,000 workers in the Greater Columbus region are $9,000 less than the state average, according to the Avalanche report.

Three apprentices were in Oneda’s first cohort, and two are in the program now. Both current apprentices also are enrolled at Columbus Tech. Statewide, more than 8,100 Registered Apprentices were in the program as of November 2018, according to TCSG. Henderson is among them.

Aaron Henderson, a Columbus Technical College student apprenticing at Oneda, writes on a slab of metal after starting a saw on Wednesday, April 10, 2019, in Columbus, Ga. Miranda Daniel

He is about one-third of the way through the four-semester Machine Tool Technology Diploma program at Columbus Tech. Attracted to the idea of earning money while learning job skills, he started his apprenticeship at Oneda in the fall of 2018. His ultimate goal is to become a tool and die designer.

“It’s lots of fun to be able to work with machines, to go from just a blank slate to having something,” he said.

Henderson earns $12.36 an hour. When he graduates from the program, he expects to be earning $15-$16 an hour.

“I’m still pretty low on the totem pole,” he said, “but I get to help out with a lot of cool projects.”

While the Ledger-Enquirer visited with him at Oneda, he worked on a lathe to trim hex rods for a tool that helps produce a part in a Rinnai tankless water heater. He also worked at the laser machining station to make a plate that helps produce a part for a Panasonic digital display in automobiles.

“It’s really interesting,” he said. “Since I don’t really see the end product, it’s a complex feeling sometimes, where I fit into it, but, I mean, it’s very satisfying work.”

Beyond skills

During 29 years working at Oneda, including 20 years as supervisor of the tool and die department, Donald Babb has mentored approximately a dozen apprentices. And most of them have become full-time employees at Oneda.

“It’s a pretty solid program,” he said. “I think it’s really trying to find what people connect with and trying to spark their interest to stick with the program and further develop themselves.”

Beyond skills, Babb said, the apprentices learn about work ethic.

“When you have a project and a deadline, it really brings that team together,” he said. “… It’s not the design that makes the part; it’s not the machining that makes the part; it’s ultimately the stamping tool that makes the part. Everybody coming together and working together to do their part to have that final piece, the stamping tool, is really important. So they do see that, and they step up to the plate and work well together.”

Apprentices also gain confidence, Hollstein said.

“It definitely increases,” she said. “They come in and they’re learning but it also gets them to have that ability to say, ‘Hey, I need a little bit of extra help here. Can you guide me and show me?’”

Oneda hopes to expand the tool and die shop’s junior apprenticeship to include students from Harris County. The company also is trying to develop apprenticeships in other technical departments, such as maintenance, quality assurance and production, Hollstein said.

MCSD’s Youth Apprenticeships

Students in the Muscogee County School District don’t have to wait until college to be an apprentice.

MCSD’s Youth Apprenticeship program started in 2007 with approximately a dozen students at 10 companies. It has grown to comprise 40 companies, with several hundred students having participated.

Ninety-eight percent of the apprentices have completed the program and all of them are employed, with salaries ranging from $31,200 in their first year to $85,000 in their 10th year of employment, said Tim Vinson, the program’s coordinator.

The program develops “unique training experiences for interested students who can pursue great career opportunities,” he said.

For employers, the Youth Apprenticeship increases the skill levels of potential full-time employees, recruits and screens them, reduces turnover of entry-level employees and improves workforce competitiveness, Vinson said.


Pratt & Whitney, Oneda and Swift Spinning (Gildan), Energy Savers, D.P. Jones Elecrical, Hobart Builders, SM Ellis Electrical, Moon Meeks Mason and Vinson Civil Engineers, Exhibit Designers, Lollar Properties, Greyhawk Homes, Metropower, Columbus Power, Columbus Water Works, Panasonic, Greater Columbus Homebuilders Association, Batson Cook Construction and the Columbus Consolidated Government


For more information about the Columbus Technical College apprenticeships with local employers, call Ingrid Rider-Owens, CTC’s manufacturing program manager, at 706-649-1842.

For more information about the Muscogee County School District apprenticeships with local employers, call program coordinator Tim Vinson at 706-527-9156 or email him at

Ledger-Enquirer staff writer Mark Rice covers education and other issues related to youth. He also writes feature stories about any compelling topic. He has been reporting in Columbus and the Chattahoochee Valley for more than a quarter-century. He welcomes your local news tips and questions.