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College costs are rising, student debt is mounting, and the unemployment rate for recent graduates is not improving. Those are some reasons that a group of young people in Charlotte, North Carolina is opting for an alternative route: apprenticeships. North Carolina Public Radio's Asma Khalid explains.

ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: Seventeen-year-old Rebeca Espinal admits with a shy smile that she's a straight-A math student. She's a high school graduate who dreamed of going to college out of state. Instead, she's working in a Charlotte factory that makes gas turbines and generators. Espinal is an apprentice with the German company Siemens.

REBECA ESPINAL: I was planning on getting a degree in international relations, but with financial aid and how difficult it is to pay for college and everything. So when Siemens came along and gave me the offer, it was too good of an opportunity to just let it go or something.

KHALID: Siemens hired Espinal and five other apprentices last year. These days, Espinal works on the factory floor.

ESPINAL: Running a machine, learning about programs, how to set up a machine for a program, also learning how to use tools and learning how to read blueprints.

KHALID: She learns all this with the help of her personal mentor, Danny Hawkins. He likes to call her Dora the Explorer, and you can see the resemblance.

DANNY HAWKINS: It's a great way for these young people to learn that there is a demand for skilled workers. Siemens has a very large workforce that's fixing to retire and there's nobody to replace them.

KHALID: When Espinal finishes her four-year training program, she'll graduate with an associate's degree, a journeyman's certificate in machining and a guaranteed job that includes a starting salary around $44,000 a year. Espinal is part of Siemens' first apprenticeship class.

But these apprenticeships in Charlotte go way back, back to 1995 when the Austrian manufacturer Blum couldn't find skilled workers. So Blum created Apprenticeship 2000. It's a co-op with seven other firms. It was revolutionary for its time.

But Andreas Thurner says it suffered from an American stigma against blue collar work. Turner runs the program.

ANDREAS THURNER: You have the one-way path in America, this is college education. So it was, you can imagine, a lot of resistance from counselors, from teachers, from principals.

KHALID: Over time, the stigma faded as the program grew. This year, Apprenticeship 2000 received a record number of applications. The companies foot the bill for training and that costs about $160,000 per student over the course of four years.

THURNER: I think it's a small price to pay, because I know the time when we couldn't do what we do now. We couldn't grow the business. We could not get machines in that they wanted because we didn't have the people to run it.

KHALID: Thurner says there's no alternative to this on-the-job training. Modern manufacturing is high tech; you're dealing with expensive equipment. Push the wrong button and you've got a $50,000 mistake.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: And so, what's going to be the speed of this shaft compared to the speed of the...

KHALID: On days when the apprentices aren't on the job, they're here at Central Piedmont Community College in downtown Charlotte. The companies partnered with the school to develop a curriculum that mixes mechanics and electronics. Today, they're learning about chain drives.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: ...is 36. Sixty-four which is 0.5...

KHALID: Rebeca Espinal, the straight-A math student we met earlier, says she doesn't regret giving up that international relations major.

ESPINAL: I don't regret it 'cause you have opportunities in this company to grow. And so, one of my goals ultimately in this company is to become an engineer and possibly, you know, travel around the world, go to other Siemens factories, and maybe, you know, work with other engineers from other countries.

KHALID: There are more than 20 other apprentices in Espinal's class and they're smart. Some tell stories of taking AP courses or receiving the top grades in physics. But apprenticeships are still fighting an image battle. Only 0.3 percent of the American workforce are apprentices. That's according to a report from American University economist Robert Lerman.

ROBERT LERMAN: It's a very minor phenomenon.

KHALID: Lerman is a fellow at the Urban Institute. He says studies show students truly benefit from on-the-job training.

LERMAN: I do not understand why there isn't a much bigger push toward shifting funding toward apprenticeship programs.

KHALID: Lerman is hopeful, though. He says these days there's a willingness to discuss apprenticeships as a viable career alternative in a way we haven't in years. It seems the crummy economy is encouraging parents and kids to rethink the value of an expensive college degree.

For NPR News, I'm Asma Khalid.

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