DURHAM — A traditional four-year college degree isn’t the only path to a successful career. Simon Mitchell would know.

Mitchell, who is 20, is an apprentice at Cary-based Buhler Aeroglide, a European manufacturing company. In 2014, Mitchell joined Mason Hurlbut and Luke Fouts to participate in Buhler’s apprenticeship pilot program.

In 2013, Buhler realized it had fallen victim to the ever-widening “skills gap.” Short on young, qualified workers, the company investigated apprenticeship programs, weighed the costs and benefits, and decided to jump in with both feet. In 2014, Buhler recruited its first class of students.

The company presented its findings to dozens of businesses during the North Carolina Chamber’s Aug. 10 education conference.

The results of the apprenticeship program far exceeded expectations, said Krystal Anderson, Buhler’s director of human resources.

“[I was surprised] by the leadership and the high level of work ethic and maturity that the apprentices brought to the table right out of the gate, Anderson told Carolina Journal. “Their enthusiasm was [inspiring.]”

The three boys, then 17, were recruited from high school engineering classes. They hadn’t so much as tinkered with a welding torch. Today, they’ve sweated their way through nearly every department in the company — from factory, to engineering, to maintenance, to management.

Most high-schoolers think college is the golden ticket to a well-paying job, said Hurlbut, who is gunning for a management position. For him, the perks of an apprenticeship far outweigh the benefits of a traditional degree.

“I probably wouldn’t have figured this out if I had gone to college like my friends,” Hurlbut said. “I don’t really know what I would have done if I hadn’t done this. I thought about the military, but obviously that didn’t pan out.”

Under the Buhler program, the three trainees work at the plant four days a week. The fifth day is spent in classes at Wake Technical Community College.

Buhler pays the boys regular wages and reimburses their tuition.

When Mitchell, Hurlbut, and Fouts finish the program in 2018 they’ll pursue their bachelor’s degrees via online courses from East Carolina University. Buhler will pay for most — if not all — of their continuing education.

Mitchell, whose mother formerly apprenticed in Austria, said his parents strongly favored his decision to forgo the traditional undergraduate education and jump straight into the workforce.

It’s not hard to sell parents on the program — mostly because Buhler is offering students a paying job and a free education, Anderson said.

Mitchell and Fouts, who considered attending N.C. State University for an engineering degree, are glad they switched plans.

While the apprentices watch friends take out student loans, switch majors, and seek jobs, they know their futures hold guaranteed job offers.

High schoolers should consider a similar program before diving in for that four-year degree, Mitchell said.

“You’ve got nothing to lose. You’re paid … and if you don’t end up liking it, that’s only one summer. You’ve got the money in your pocket — and valuable experiences and classes that were paid for. So it’s a win-win.”  

Apprenticeships require a company to dedicate time and resources to train new workers, but the investment is well worth it, said Michael Taylor, Buhler’s apprenticeship mentor and coordinator.

A handful of companies in North Carolina are beginning to adapt such programs, but more could benefit, Taylor said.

If a company lacks talent, it should look for ways to solve its own problem. Apprenticeships are a good place to start.

“We all know that we’re having issues with skills gaps and trying to hire future leaders. And [a skeptical company] should just come in and see the initiative these young adults take. They’re learning. They’re held to the same standard as everyone else … . Go check … meet some apprentices somewhere. You’ll know the difference.”