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Nucor technical academy readies next generation of workers

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NEW MARKET — After graduating high school this spring, Elijah Sparks started a paid internship at Nucor Steel, where he worked with an electrician to wire up machinery.

“I’ve learned way more than I thought I would,” said Sparks, 19, who was a student in the West Central Indiana Career and Technical Education Cooperative’s advanced manufacturing class. 

Sparks will continue training in the next phase of Nucor’s technical academy in Alabama, opening the door to a career at the company. Students work and receive hands-on training at the Tuscaloosa sheet mill while attending industry-prep classes at a local community college. 

Upon completing their education, workers are offered an entry-level maintenance position at Nucor and sign a three-year contract with the company. Sparks is the first Montgomery County student to be accepted for the program.

Amid a nationwide shortage of skilled workers, companies are offering more training opportunities for employees and creating incentives for recent high school graduates to begin their careers with in-demand jobs.

U.S. employers spent $1,296 per employee on training in 2017, up 1.7 percent from $1,273 the previous year, according to the Association for Talent Development, a non-profit organization.

At some companies, employees can take certification courses, complete on-the-job training programs or online courses, and receive tuition reimbursement.

The region’s career and technical education program provides students with a foot in the door. Advanced manufacturing students recently got hands-on training at Pace Dairy and can apply for an internship program through Vincennes University offering paid work experience at Subaru of Indiana Automotive and other companies.

Sparks said he’d been hired at Caterpillar when he learned about the technical academy. Students can receive free tuition, get paid to attend class and provided housing. They are required to work at their sponsoring Nucor plant during semester breaks.

Nucor officials in Crawfordsville received 12 finalists this year after applications were reviewed. The plant sent two other candidates from Putnam and Parke counties to the academy.

“We’re looking for somebody that has a good technical aptitude, a lot of enthusiasm,” said engineering and maintenance supervisor Ron Barnett, who helped interview and select the candidates. “Passion can’t be overrated.”

As entry-level maintenance workers, academy graduates would troubleshoot technical problems with equipment and machinery. Wages range from $15 to more than $21 per hour, according to an analysis of recent job postings on employment search engine Indeed.com.

“So right out of the gate, you’re going to be making more [money] than any of your classmates,” said Sparks, speaking to advanced manufacturing students at Southmont High School.

Sparks said he eventually plans to become an electrical engineer.

“That was really a tough decision to let go of Caterpillar, but I made the right decision,” he said.

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