Resides: Vale, North Carolina
Occupation: Student, Apprentice for ZF Lemforder
Family: Parents, two sisters, two brothers
What was growing up in Catawba County like for you?
My parents are from Germany, and they relocated to Vale. The development we live in used to be a horse farm. There’s still a lot of farms out there. Our neighbors have horses, and we have goats and chickens.
Where did you go to high school?
Fred T. Foard.
When you were high school, did you wonder about what you were going to do after you graduated?
I already knew I was going to do the apprenticeship program [Apprenticeship Catawba at Catawba Valley Community College, or CVCC]. My dad told me he wouldn't pay for my college, and the apprenticeship pays for my college. It’s important to mention that my dad went through an apprenticeship when he was in Germany. There, apprenticeship was something everyone did. You went to school after you finished the apprenticeship because after you gained that hands-on experience, you would get your degree. My brothers did apprenticeships, too.
You’re apprenticing with a company right now, right? With ZF?
Yes. We’re an automotive company. We make control arms and knuckles for BMW, Mercedes, Audi, Jaguar, Honda, lots of different companies.
What does your apprenticeship focus on? What are you learning?
Mechatronics. It's like mechanical and electrical engineering put together. Right now I’m a technician, and I’m mainly fixing things. There’s some design at times, but it’s mainly fixing things. All the apprentices are trained to be maintenance technicians. We’re the ones they call when something happens to a machine, and we fix it to make sure production does not shut down.
How are you liking it?
Right now, it's great. At times, of course, it's difficult. Especially yesterday, we had six or seven machines down and we only had three technicians there. At times you're overwhelmed, but it's a lot of fun because you're always doing something new every day.
You’re kind of following a traditional path from your parents' perspective. Do you think the apprenticeship has been the right choice for you?
Yes, because my two-year degree has been paid for and I just got accepted to Western. I'll beworking at ZF and doing the distance learning program in Hickory. I'll be getting my four-year degree in Engineering Technologies.
What does your long-term career path look like?
I don't know. There are so many options. I talked to the HR representative at ZF, and there are even options to take a job in Germany because ZF is a German-based company. I mean, that's across the world. You can go anywhere. ZF has places in Australia, and China, and everywhere. One of the apprentices for another company is currently in Germany for six weeks because he’s getting trained. He just turned 22. The opportunities are there.
How do you feel about being able to step into a four-year degree having a couple years of experience under your belt?
In my opinion, the experience is worth as much as a degree is. The degree says that I should be able to do it, but the experience says I can do it.
Your brothers went through the apprenticeship training as well. What are they doing now?
My oldest brother is in Austria now working for the company that he did his apprenticeship with. His wife and two daughters are there too. My other brother is helping coordinate new apprentices coming into that program for his company.
What do you like to do when you're not working and going to school?
Sleeping! I like playing soccer, snowboarding, and I like working on cars. Unfortunately, I work on carstoo much. My brothers and sister and I all had to restore an old car if we wanted a car to drive when we turned sixteen. I did a 1970 Beetle. I wasn’t allowed to get my license until I restored it.
So, you had to learn everything from scratch?
Oh yeah, I took it completely apart. Down to the last bolt. I was 12 when I bought the Beetle, and I was almost 17 by the time it was finished.
What was it like the first time you drove it after it was all done?
Crazy. I had painted all the sheet metal on my engine with high temperature paint, but the Beetle’s engine gets really, really hot. It started smoking, and I got really scared. And then, of course, with an old car you're always repairing it. When I would drive to school, I would leave about an hour early so that if anything happened, I could try to fix it along the way. I had a whole back seat full of spare parts.
What do you like about living in Catawba County?
It's quiet, especially in Vale. I don't like city life. It's nice to be close to the city, but I don't want to be in it. It's also diverse. In an hour, you're in the mountains. Four hours that way, you're at the beach. It’s pretty centralized, and it's pretty close to some big areas. Charlotte is 40 miles from our house.
Is this a place where you could see yourself living for a long time?
Yeah. The job opportunities are definitely here, especially as a technician. They're everywhere. I could see it just based on job availability because there are so many here.
If you met a stranger and they asked you what it’s like to live in Catawba County, what would you tell them?
I always go back to the diverse thing. I feel like Catawba County does have at least a little bit of that. I mean, the Hispanic culture here is enormous. Different areas of Catawba County are pretty diverse. Where I work, you get to meet people from Puerto Rico, San Salvador, everywhere.
If you were in a room full of young high school students, what would you tell them based on the path you've been on and what you've experienced?
I think there's a gap between what universities produce and what industries want. Employers want to see someone who has been in the field a little bit. It's hard to get work experience, and that's what employers want. The path I took gives me a crazy amount of work experience plus a degree, and now I'm going back to get my four-year degree. I'm taking the same path that they'll do in four years, and it'll take me six years. But I don't have to pay for any of it, and I get all the work experience.
Apprenticeship gives you the work experience and a small degree. The university gives you that larger degree, but I think a lot of people find out too late that they don't actually want to do the work that degree prepares them for. Going through the apprentice path actually helps you find out if you like the job.
When you were in high school, did you have an idea of what you'd even want to major in at a four-year college, or has the apprenticeship program kind of helped you zone in on that more?
Both. My dad is an engineer, so engineering was always the route. Working at ZF through the apprenticeship, I shadowed some of the engineers there and I enjoyed what they did, especially since I don’t want to be the engineer that always sits behind a desk. At ZF, the engineering is much more than that. They also have a lot of customer relationships, and I would really enjoy that because I enjoy talking.
What would you say to a parent who is wondering if this is a good path for their child?
If they're not really looking at an apprenticeship, I would encourage their kids to tour a manufacturing facility to get a better idea of where it can take them. I would also recommend they go to CVCC first. Transferring from a two-year degree to a four-year degree is ten times cheaper than going straight to a four-year degree. Their child would have time to think about what he wants to do while he’s getting the two-year degree at a fraction of the cost of a four-year degree. A lot of people my age want to get away from the nest as quickly as possible, but the cheaper route is always there. Depends on what you want.
Interviewed May 1, 2018