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Skilled to Work: "Tiger Launch" offers apprenticeship-style experience to high school students

The program began at the beginning of the fall 2018 semester through Hartselle High School.

Posted: Mar 7, 2019 11:06 AM
Updated: Mar 12, 2019 11:13 AM

As manufacturing continues to grow in Alabama, companies like Sonoco in Hartselle are consistently on the lookout for new employees.

The international company’s Hartselle plant produces industrial products for packing like reels and spools among other items. They are they largest industrial employer in Hartselle with roughly 300 people on their workforce.

Tiger Launch information:

  • Busche
    • 2018 - 6 students
    • 2019 - TBD
  • Cerro Wire
    • 2018 - 4 students
    • 2019 - 8 students
  • Sonoco
    • 2018 - 8 students
    • 2019 - 16 students
Students from Hartselle High School work on an assembly line that was installed in a former storage facility for the junior high school. Students from Hartselle High School work on an assembly line that was installed in a former storage facility for the junior high school.

Plant Manager Todd Whatley said in order to continue their success though, they need to be able to reach younger people.

“It’s going to be vital to our area as we continue to expand, not only just our company and business, but also we have new manufacturers coming in,” said Whatley.

That’s why Sonoco along with Bushe and Cerro Wire partnered with Hartselle City Schools for their new apprenticeship-style program called “Tiger Launch.”

HCS Superintendent Dr. Dee Dee Jones told WAAY 31 that the program addresses a key need in the community.

“In north Alabama, you know, we’re constantly being told that there’s a limited pool of students. And so we wanted to grow and help our workforce development,” said Dr. Jones.

The program began at the start of the 2018-2019 school year and is now in its second semester. The 18 students involved start their day with some core classes and learn about workplace safety and etiquette before heading off to work around 1 p.m.

“It’s really an apprenticeship program. They’re getting firsthand, manufacturing experience,” said instructor Jeff Hyche.

Hyche is the former principal of Hartselle High School and returned after leaving that position to oversee the Tiger Launch program.

Students start with a base salary of $10 per hour, but the companies can increase that depending on performance. Hyche said the model is like the “12 for Life” program in Florence City Schools.

“It's real life. This is real life work. If you don’t do what you’re supposed to do, you’re no longer employed. If you do excellent work, you may get a bump and get a raise,” said Hyche.

Whatley told WAAY 31 that having the 12 for Life program as a comparison helped Sonoco feel more at ease coming on board with Tiger Launch.

“One of our customers in the Florence area has some experience with the same thing and having some comfort with that, we were able to just talk through some risk management pieces with our company and we were able to get things going pretty good,” said Whatley.

The program is offered to juniors and seniors who are at least 17-years-old. Senior Nicholas Young said he was working at a fast food restaurant before joining the program. Now, he plans to stay with Sonoco while he goes to college.

“It’s real good work experience and it’ll get you, maybe you’ll know what you want to do in the future with it. And I took that opportunity and I love it,” said Young.

Hartselle City Schools said they are excited by the programs success in its first year. They said they are not only expanding the number of students in the fall, but they are also adding a morning section to accommodate students who want to participate in after-school activities and sports.

They are also starting to look beyond just manufacturing.

"That was our initial focus. But we know that there’s a great need in the building and construction industry and that’s another area where we’re looking at,” said Hyche.

As of now, no new companies have been confirmed. But Whatley said from what they’re seeing, everyone involved is benefitting.

“They get to learn the discipline that it takes to really be successful in the workplace while we on the other hand have an opportunity to understand our incoming workforce and how we can apply our learning to what we’re doing in our facilities to make improvements,” said Whatley.

School officials said they’re also working with some Morgan County schools to allow their students to join Tiger Launch as well.

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