How career-seekers can dream big, avoid student debt, and discover opportunity.

Altheha DrePaul’s workday is again packed. “Month end is always so busy,” she said in her soft Caribbean accent.

As an International Account Manager who handles multimillion-dollar manufacturing projects, Altheha oversees the production and export of metal formed parts to companies in China, Brazil, Mexico, and other international destinations. She clearly loves her work, because her smile is ever-present. “Time flies when you’re having fun, doesn’t it,” she laughed. “Have I been here 10 years already?”

The “here” Altheha refers to is Ajax Metal Forming Solutions of Minneapolis. Altheha connected with Ajax through the M-Powered program at Hennepin Technical College in Minneapolis. A friend had invited the unemployed and struggling native of Guyana, South America to an informational meeting at HTC. That meeting lit the fuse. Altheha has since followed a life-changing, 10-year career path that led her to this busy day filled with meetings and phone calls to corporate customers worldwide.

This is a success story that Ajax likes to repeat. It’s good for business. Ajax has historically grappled with a frustrating and long-running issue that many Minnesota manufacturing companies face: the Skills Gap. There’s simply not enough qualified job applicants to meet demand.

That’s why Erick Ajax, one of Ajax’s owners, formed an educational partnership with HTC a decade ago. Together they developed M-Powered, a fast-track training curriculum in advanced manufacturing that continues to produce successful graduates such as Altheha.

She joined us in 2007 as a machine operator,” Ajax said. “Altheha went on to complete her M-Powered program and then our registered apprenticeship program. She became a Class A Journeyworker by completing 8,000 hours of on-the-job training and 144 hours of additional classes in the Minnesota state college system. She has since greatly increased her earnings and benefits,” he said.

Pre-paid tuition – the foothold

A huge advantage for students like Altheha who enter registered apprenticeship programs is the pre-paid tuition companies provide. Ajax covered every dime of Altheha’s tuition up front. She incurred zero student debt.

Student debt, long a concern, has reached the crisis level. In Minnesota, the average student debt load is $31,526, ranking sixth nationally. Seventy percent are carrying student debt, good for fifth nationally.

Student debt is particularly troublesome because it forces grads to delay home purchases, marriage, and retirement savings. One in six of these loans default. Moreover, many of the student debtors dropout. The dropout rate is alarming: only 43% of public college students will complete their four-year degrees. The financial obligation will follow these young debtors around like a shadow.

What Altheha needed was a foothold, and she got it. Students in registered apprentice programs actually earn income rather than assume debt, as much as $125,000 by graduation. As a result, very few quit the program. In return, the company gets well-trained employees that fit hand-in-glove to their human resource needs.

Ajax said his company doesn’t limit opportunities to the plant floor. “The great thing about manufacturing is that there’s a wider range of career paths to choose from once the employee is ready to advance,” Ajax said. “Several of our successful employees have gone on to pursue advanced degrees. If a student is ready and willing to put forth a great effort, the sky is the limit.”

Ajax said manufacturers need good people in finance, marketing, HR, sales engineering, computer-aided design, and others. “Manufacturers need good people in all these fields,” he said. Ajax said his company pre-pays $5,000 in annual tuition for successful employees who continue on to earn 4-year degrees in relevant areas of study.

The Message To Parents

Ajax Human Resources Director Curt Jasper said his company has been able to double its workforce in four years due in part to registered apprenticeships. “We have a great program in place,” he said. “Now our job is to get the message out.”

Jasper said his company’s program includes learners from diverse backgrounds; including men and women who speak English as a second language. “Manufacturing has improved its reputation,” Jasper said. “The old days of dark, dirty, dangerous plants are over. The modern plant is a highly technical, computer driven operation. More and more Women especially are getting into manufacturing for the higher pay.”

Ajax provides very competitive pay, retirement plans, insurance, health care, and numerous other incentives to attract top workers. “We’re a Minnesota Top Workplace for three years running,” Erick Ajax said. “We’re a clean, safe, workplace.

Ajax said Class A Journeyworkers can earn more than $20 per hour. The more experienced Journeyworkers can earn well over $30 per hour.

Ajax has decades of apprenticeship experience, Jasper said. His company offers five different trades in the apprenticeships program:

* Tool & Die Maker
* Machine Operator
* Production Sheet Metal Worker
* Punch Press Operator
* Maintenance

Ajax said his company continues to modernize its learning programs to include online resources like, an online, competency-based learning and development solutions for manufacturers.

A career idea that politicians of all stripes agree on.

This idea is so win-win that politicians on both sides of the aisle agree that it works, a rarity these days. On April 13, Minnesota Sen. Al Franken reintroduced his college affordability bills. The bills, which are co-led by Iowa Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley, are part of a long-time collaboration between the two Senators to help students avoid insurmountable debt.

Sen. Franken recently hosted his “Advancing Career Pathways Summit” in St. Paul, where he showcased a variety of successful and innovative school-business partnerships that will serve as models for his new legislation, “the Career Pathways Innovation Act,” which will incentivize such partnerships. The Summit drew more than 350 Minnesota educators, business leaders, and policy makers.

“As I’ve traveled around Minnesota, I’ve seen employers take important steps to address the skills gap, which is hurting our economic competitiveness in the 21st century,” Sen. Franken said. “Countries like Germany and Switzerland have an education and workforce training system that understands the value of on-the-job learning. Here in Minnesota, I’ve seen smart business leaders take this approach, including Erick Ajax whose manufacturing company helps workers improve their skills on the job, while advancing their education. He is succeeding because his workers can climb a good-paying career ladder, and in return he has a reliable and skilled work force.”

Also this month, Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, along with Maine Republican Sen. Susan Collins, introduced the American Apprenticeship Act to provide funding to states to expand apprenticeship programs.

“We have businesses that need workers and workers that need jobs,” Sen. Klobuchar said. “Oftentimes their skills just aren’t matching up. In Minnesota, more than 70 percent of our manufacturers said it was difficult for them to find workers with the right skills and experience.”

Program Qualifications

The U.S. Department of Labor created guidelines to help companies like Ajax get DOL certification to become a registered apprenticeship program participant. The guidelines are strict. Curriculum design approval by the DOL is a requirement, and the employer must employ three highly-experienced and certified mentors for each apprentice.

Requirements for Ajax’s students are also strict: Applicants must:

* Present a high school diploma or GED
* Demonstrate good conduct and study habits
* Score 80th percentile or better on the Precision Metalforming Association aptitude assessment.
* Pass a drug test
* Pass a math test
* Pass a thorough background check

Successful applicants must gear up for rigorous learning. Perfect classroom attendance is expected, as are excellent grades and an enthusiastic attitude. At Ajax, program dropouts are very rare. “We’ve done a good job of screening the youngsters we bring into our program,” said Jasper. “We don’t want to lose a single apprentice.”

Manufacturing Day

On National Manufacturing Day, more than 1,600 American manufacturers will open their doors to high-school students and the general public as a means to promote manufacturing in America. Ajax Metal Forming Solutions has been constant participant in Manufacturing Day and this year will host hundreds of high school students from around Minneapolis for plant tours and demonstrations. Manufacturing Day occurs annually on the first Friday in October, this year Oct 6, 2017.

“Manufacturing Day is an excellent place to start learning about advanced modern manufacturing and registered apprenticeship programs,” Erick Ajax said. “Any young person who wants to launch a great career in manufacturing should start preparing right away.”