Rutherford County Schools Connect Students with Business Apprenticeships

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WWS Student Apprentices. Photo from Rutherford Works Facebook.

A need for workers has reinforced the connection between Rutherford County Schools and local businesses that has been building over the past 20 years. Now, the school system’s Career and Technical Education (CTE) Department is working with local businesses large and small to help them develop programs to get students into work based learning and apprentice programs while still in high school.

Paige Wilkerson, an Industry Engagement Specialist for Rutherford County Schools, recently shared information with human resources executives at a recent Rutherford Works conference on how students under 18 years of age are legally able to participate in paid work based learning and apprenticeship programs.

Two Tennessee laws apply: Worker’s Compensation Law T.C.A. 50-6-102 (10)(A), and Child Labor Law Inclusion T.C.A. 50-5-107 (11). The first defines an employee “as every person, including a minor,” and the second allows sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds to be “a student learner enrolled in a course of study or training in a cooperative vocational training program under a recognized state or local educational authority…The student learner must be employed under a written agreement…”

Nissan, Ascension Saint Thomas and Wallenius Wilhelmsen Solutions (WWS), Lee Company, Roscoe Brown and Cultivation Network all participate in either pre-apprentice or apprentice programs with students in Rutherford County Schools. 

Shane Peyton, Manufacturing, Supply Chain and Logistics Leader for WWS, coordinates the apprenticeship program between his company and Smyrna High School. In its third year, the company currently has seven students in their apprenticeship program.

“This is …[a] great opportunity for us to partner with young people to get them real world experience,” said Peyton. “It is good for them, and it is good for us.”

WWS is a global shipping company that manages the supply chain between the Nissan plant in Smyrna and the WWS fleet of 140 roll on/roll off ships that service 80 ports all over the world. The company also does some finish work for Nissan, including installing cross bars and splash guards, that aren’t done by Nissan employees.

There are two tiers of work that WWS gives their work-based students the opportunity to learn, with different levels of pay. All participating students have chosen to learn the more complex jobs and earn bonus pay.

“We opened [the program] up to 18-year-olds [the first year],” explained Peyton. “We had four that volunteered and came to work for us. The four best workers I have ever had…Three of them stayed with us. One of them went on to college, but while they were in college…they transferred to [our Volkswagen] facility in Chattanooga and worked summers there.”

Students work the WWS Mid-Day Flex shift and they are trained like regular employees. They are introduced to logistics, operational instructions, AI, quality reviews, partner communications, and before they leave the program, each student earns a Forklift certification. The students have been held to and performed to the same or better productivity and quality standards as regular WWS employees.

“This is the first year we hired them as WWS employees,” said Peyton. In previous years, WWC hired the students through a temporary employment service that specializes in hiring underage workers until they felt comfortable with the ins and outs of the process. Now, the students are given full benefits.

Once the students have completed the program, WWS has offered all of their apprenticeship graduates a job. They are given the opportunity to work full-time during the summer months.

While the WWS apprenticeship program falls under the heading of Marketing, Distribution and Logistics and requires the understanding of technical skills, according to Wilkerson, “In the United States, we have 16 career clusters, we have programs in all 16 in Rutherford County.”

While not all of these programs are apprenticeships, the county does offer extensive Career Preparation and Career Training experiences.

To learn more about CTE and work-based learning offered by the Rutherford County School system or how to set up a similar program in other types of business, contact Tiffany Phillips at [email protected].