Editor’s Note: Chad Robinson, who shares his story in this post, is a manufacturing apprentice at Siemens Charlotte Energy Hub. What began as a pilot in Charlotte has since expanded to 10 programs in 9 states, as Siemens continues to invest $50 million annually in continuing education for employees.
I began my apprenticeship at the Siemens Charlotte Energy Hub (CEH) in August, 2015. Just walking into that plant is an amazing experience because the Hub is so massive, so bright and so clean. It’s so big you need a personal GPS inside or you’ll get lost. But if not for a change in my own plans, I would never have set foot in there.
I was a STEM student at Olympic High School in Charlotte, North Carolina. I’m proud to say that I was on Olympic’s FIRST robotics team and we went all the way to world championships, in 2015. My parents were encouraging me to go straight from high school to a four-year college. I wasn’t going to disappoint them. But, around the same time, early in my senior year, I was participating in various apprenticeships around Charlotte. Roger Collins, the director of the apprenticeship program at the CEH, brought to my attention the apprenticeship program there, and he talked with my parents about it. Mom and dad began to see the benefits of a Siemens apprenticeship, and the three of us eventually realized that it was too great an opportunity to pass up.
My apprenticeship at the CEH will last until August 2019. While I’ve been there, I have definitely improved my hard skills—machining and programming, and lathe work on various CNC machines throughout the plant. I have also quickly realized that soft skills—presenting ideas, collaborating, communicating and listening—are what is most important in the modern workplace. And my soft skills have become much better through my apprenticeship. This is the kind of stuff that isn’t taught a lot in high school, but these skills are required no matter what you do, and they will be a differentiator in industries where AI is more and more covering the hard-skill jobs.
When I think about this path I’ve chosen, I realize I’ve just swapped the typical order of things: instead of college first, career second, I’ve entered a work environment that allows me to get paid as I learn on the job and go to college for free, and that all but guarantees me the opportunity to start my career at Siemens earning at least $55,000 a year. I still plan to get a four-year bachelor’s degree, but I’ll already have a lot of quality work experience by the time I do. I’m currently debt-free, and once I start working on my bachelor’s degree, I can also utilize tuition reimbursement from Siemens.
My next step is the Congress-Bundestag Youth Exchange for Young Professionals (CBYX). That’s a federally funded fellowship for a year of study and work in Germany. I got involved with this because my German instructor at Central Piedmont Community College—I’m just finishing an associate’s degree in business—and a friend of mine, a German exchange student, encouraged me to apply to the CBYX. Roger Collins also encouraged me to apply, and I was lucky to get in, because only 75 people out of 550 applicants were selected.
Come August, I’ll be living with a host family in Germany. I’ll be able to practice my language skills every day for a full year, which is going to benefit me in numerous ways with my career at Siemens. This company operates all over the world, so languages are really important. I’ve previously lived in Germany, for three months, and nearly everyone I met spoke at least two languages. In the U.S., we don’t focus enough on speaking a second language. We think English is all we need.
Looking ahead to college, I see myself getting a bachelor’s degree in international business and finance, along with a German-language degree. Beyond that, I can’t say exactly what I’ll be doing. But my apprenticeship has taught me a key thing: Anyone who hopes to rise to a leadership position someday must keep in mind that the best managers are able to listen, have good speaking ability and can think creatively.