The secret to employment in a tough economy

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By Jennifer Thomas By Jennifer Thomas

PHOENIX -- We all know college graduates who are buried in student loans and can't seem to find a job to pay them back. At the same time, high-tech businesses in Arizona can't find well-educated workers. The answer to both problems could be apprentice programs -- an ancient practice enjoying a 21st century revival.

"Our biggest problem in this industry and in many high-tech industries is the availability of a skilled workforce," said Mark Weathers, president of Excalibur Precision in Peoria. "That's really held us back."

His answer: the centuries-old tradition of apprenticeships. Weathers just hired his second apprentice and is very proud of his first -- 19-year-old Mike Bessette, who graduated from Ironwood High School last year.

"I get to learn a lot about the machining and since I want to be an engineer, all the machines, if I know how they work, I'll be able to engineer them pretty easily," Bessette said."

Excalibur Precision employs 26 people who run giant, computerized machines scattered across the plant floor. The machines mill metal parts for customers like Boeing and the U.S. military. Weathers said low-tech manufacturing jobs are probably going offshore for good. But high-tech jobs are coming back to the U.S. and fighting obsolete stereotypes.

"There's a perception that it's dark and dirty and dangerous, when in fact in the precision manufacturing business, it's very clean, it's mostly computerized, it's very challenging work, very technical, very close tolerances," he said. "And actually, the outlook is very positive. There's a big demand for skilled machinists."

At the same time, millions of college graduates can't find work to pay back student loans. Experts say the nation's student loan burden just surpassed a trillion dollars -- more than our total credit card debt. Weathers said high school graduates need options.

"It really bothers me to see so many kids pushed toward college," Weathers said. "The statistics on success rates -- the amount of kids that actually graduate with degrees in the field they started or degrees at all -- is frighteningly low. It's under 50 percent."

Bessette won't be one of those statistics.

"Mostly I've been paying for college myself -- having a job here," he said.

He works full time at Excalibur and attends Glendale Community College at night.

"This apprentice program is a way to get into the field that you're interested in, find out if it's really what you want to do, hone your skills," Weathers said. "At the same time, you're making money. It's a full-time job so you're not going to come out with this giant debt load at the end and you'll have a great set of skills that are portable across the country."

Weathers predicts this public-private partnership approach to higher education will explode.

"In this state we have excellent community colleges, we have active industry folks, like myself. We have a lot of great kids out there. But what we lack is something to bring all those things together. And that's what we feel the apprentice program can do."

He said he's working on adding more companies to the five now in his apprentice program called the Arizona Precision Manufacturing Program (AZPMAP). And even without marketing the program has attracted 100 applicants in under two years.

Check the group's website for information,