Late spring can be an anxious time for seniors graduating from high school across the United States. There are so many choices and opportunities ahead of them … and so many unknowns. But not for Cody West. He knew exactly where he was headed when he got his diploma from Pisgah High School this time last year: GE Aviation.
At 19, West has a full-time job in GE Aviation’s Asheville, North Carolina plant, where he recently was promoted to Skilled Machinist. And thanks to a long-running partnership between the plant and Pisgah High School, it was a job he was more than prepared for.
That’s just how Chip Singleton planned it. Singleton runs the metals manufacturing program in Pisgah High School’s vocational department, where he has a keen focus on prepping his students for jobs in local industry. For the best of the best, it’s a shot at a career with GE Aviation, where the complexity and precision required for jet engine components set the plant apart from other local options for his graduates.
Located about 20 miles west of Asheville, Pisgah is a regional High School that draws its approximately 1,000 students from across rural Haywood County, North Carolina. Nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains, Canton’s biggest employer is a large paper mill. Less than half the graduating class goes on to four-year colleges and universities. It is a blue collar area where kids grow up with a strong work ethic. Singleton’s mission is to turn that raw potential into employment-ready graduates.
The vetting starts Freshman year, when Singleton does a six-week introduction to metals. “I tell them they are basically in a three-year job interview,” he says. As the students progress through the curriculum that starts with basic lathes and mills and progresses to advanced Computer Numerical Control (CNC) machining, he watches for those that have the right aptitude, math skills, ability to work with others, and a solid attendance record. Those that make the cut spend their last semester combining class work in the morning with a six-hour afternoon shift as an apprentice at the plant.
For West, the program proved the perfect fit. “I like engineering too, and I thought about going to college,” he said. “But I just couldn’t pass up on this opportunity. I learn more hands-on than in a classroom setting.”
Singleton himself worked in the GE plant for nine years before becoming a teacher, and his program has become a reliable talent pipeline for the plant. He’s fed at least two apprentices into the plant workforce every year for more years than he remembers. “When you start something like this, you don’t know if it will continue,” he said with a chuckle. But continue it has. In fact, about 15% of the machinists in the plant hail from Pisgah High’s E Building, which houses the school’s vocational programs.
About a year ago, GE made a $100,000 donation to the school to support new equipment purchases, curriculum development and training for faculty and instructors. The money was a shot in the arm for the program, enabling Singleton to purchase much-needed machinery. But he says it’s the recognition for the program that came along with the donation that has had the greatest impact.
Most notable is a decision by the state to grant Singleton what’s known as a “local course option,” essentially the freedom to build a metals manufacturing curriculum that will be even more tailored to local needs. “It was kind of a surprise that came through, because I’ve been trying to do it for four years,” he said.
The new curriculum will enable him to do more to help kids be ready to go to work when they graduate, including more instruction on inspection, quality control, computer aided design (CAD) software packages, computer numerical control (CNC) machining programming, as well as course work to help them develop soft skills. And it also will enable him to tailor more apprentice programs to feed growing demand from other area manufacturers who are struggling to find skilled workers.
He also used some of the money to buy a laser etching machine, which he concedes is largely a gimmick to draw more kids into the E Building. They love to bring in things like phone cases for etching. Singleton hopes it switches more of them on to the career opportunities he’s helping create.
West, for one, recommends it. He always had an interest in machinery, and took three years of progressively more advanced metals courses, culminating in the GE apprenticeship and job opportunity. Less than a year out of high school, he’s already advancing along a career path.
Working in aerospace is pretty cool, but it’s his co-workers who really have him hooked. “It’s a really good place to work,” he says. “Guys help you any way they can, and I’m learning every day.”