Machine Specialists, Incorporated (MSI) demonstrates workforce development excellence through numerous initiatives, including establishing several apprenticeship programs. They collaborate with three community colleges to recruit new employees and create an incumbent employee training program and an internal young adult apprenticeship program. The company partners with Alamance, Guilford, and Rockingham counties to recruit youth apprentices while in high school, offering a pathway to earn a two-year degree from a local community college and a journeyman certificate issued by the US Department of Labor.
Machine Specialities is working with the state, the Department of Adult Correction (DAC), and local leaders on a local prison/reentry workforce apprenticeship program. Recently, they were certified as the first manufacturer in the state to be a Family ForwardNC employer. Furthermore, they have implemented internal programs for all employees focused on personal development, known as CORE.
The marketing and culture vice president at MSI, Tammy Simmons, is the program coordinator of the organization’s workforce initiatives. Simmons oversees the organization’s apprenticeship program, which focuses on youth apprenticeships. The organization recruits high school students for a free 4-year program that guarantees them a job at the end of the program. “The apprenticeship is an opportunity for students who prefer hands-on learning and may not yet have a clear career path. We have over 13 or 14 tracks registered with the State of North Carolina for apprenticeships, providing various pathways for students to explore. This program offers students and their families a valuable opportunity,” stated Simmons.

Apprenticeship Program

The apprenticeship program offers students payment for their on-the-job training at the employer and time spent in class earning their degree. “We cover all their expenses, from books to tools, fees, and even parking stickers,” explains Simmons. “For many students, scholarships for a traditional four-year university aren’t enough to support their families, so this program provides a valuable income source.”Remarkably, some valedictorian high school students have chosen this apprenticeship path. Not only is it helping our businesses but it’s also helped change the landscape of our communities by giving these high-skill trade well-paying positions to some of these students who may have never even considered or had the opportunity to do so,” said Simmons. 
MSI offers this opportunity to junior or senior students, regardless of whether they attend public, private, homeschool, charter, or virtual school. Simmons explained, “We try to reach out to students in every high school in the county, visiting each one to engage with the students. Sometimes, we address the whole junior class in an auditorium; other times we speak to specific groups like math students. We encourage them to fill out an application and attend an open house, where we ask them to bring a guardian or parent to learn about the opportunity,” explained Simmons.
These young students are tasked with various projects and assignments during the program, initially arriving nervous and unsure. However, by the end of the fourth night, they become more comfortable and engaged. On the final night, students are asked to rank their apprenticeship preferences and the type of company they’d like to work for. Following this, they are invited to participate in a six-week pre-apprenticeship during the summer, a preliminary step before the full apprenticeship begins with an aim to align their expectations with the reality of working and studying for the next four years. During this period, students take two classes at the community college, usually on industrial safety and engineering, while also working at the employer’s site. “This experience enlightens the students and us as we assess their commitment, enthusiasm and readiness for the apprenticeship. It’s a crucial stage where they can envision themselves starting their careers, managing the dual responsibilities of college and working effectively,” expressed Simmons.
After completing the summer pre-apprenticeship phase, students participate in a signing ceremony held in August. This event is significant and often attended by mayors, elected officials, and even the president of North Carolina Community College System. Invitations are extended to principals, teachers, family members and anyone who has supported the students. It’s akin to receiving a $50,000 scholarship opportunity, similar to what an athlete might experience. 
Recently graduated seniors attend community college one to two times a day. “We organize them into cohorts that start together and progress through classes as a group. This approach differs from a typical college schedule, ensuring sufficient time during their apprenticeship while meeting their educational needs,” explained Simmons. The community college collaborates closely with MSI, scheduling classes in blocks that align with the employer’s needs and the students’ schedules, providing a structured and practical learning experience.
In their first year, apprentices rotate through 12 departments within MSI, each aligned with the various tracks registered with the State. This rotational experience is designed to provide them with a comprehensive understanding of our operations and help them discover where their strengths and interests lie. “We believe in utilizing employees’ natural talents and strengths, as working in a role that doesn’t allow for this can be draining and hinder one’s potential for success. We aim to place each apprentice in a department where they can thrive, grow, and feel fulfilled,” Simmons revealed. After the initial year of exploration, apprentices choose four departments they are most interested in: welding, engineering, supply chain logistics, or quality control. They then spend three months in each of these departments to truly delve into the roles and find what resonates with them on a deeper level, moving from discovering what they like and to uncovering what they love.
After that initial year of exploration, apprentices often have a clear idea of their career aspirations. For example, they might decide, “I want to become a quality manager,” and choose to spend the remainder of their four-year apprenticeship in the quality department. This focused period allows them to deepen their knowledge and skills in their chosen area. “It’s remarkable to witness their growth throughout the program, as many of these young individuals transition from high school students to mature adults. I’ve seen several apprentices achieve significant milestones, such as one young woman who became a homeowner while still in the program,” Simmons continued, “Coming from a background where homeownership was rare in her family, she broke that cycle. She demonstrated that success can be achieved through alternative paths like apprenticeships, without the need for traditional college education. It’s moments like these that truly highlight the impact and potential of our apprenticeship program.”
MSI’s current employees are enthusiastic about the apprenticeship program as well. “Initially, I was concerned about how our older tool and die makers, nearing retirement, would feel about working alongside younger apprentices. However, to my surprise, they welcomed the new energy and enthusiasm the apprentices bring to the shop,” Simmons said. On days when an apprentice isn’t present due to school, the more seasoned employees express that they are missing the energy they bring. One MSI employee postponed retirement for two years to be able to see his apprentice through the four-year program and attend their graduation. “This level of commitment and investment in the apprenticeship program is significant for everyone involved,” Simmons stated. 
When comparing the graduation completion rates of MSI apprentices to the general student population, the apprenticeship completion rates are notably higher. In their first year, they maintained a 92% retention rate for the students they recruited, which is impressive. “Our apprentices learn extensively during their rotation from the ground up, and this knowledge sticks with them no matter their department. This depth of understanding allows them to contribute meaningfully in meetings, demonstrating expertise from hands-on experience. Everyone does not get this opportunity to learn and apply their knowledge when entering the workforce,” said Simmons.
Another way to gauge the success of their apprenticeship program is by looking at the number of apprentices who have risen to leadership positions within their company. For instance, MSI’s second shift plant manager was an apprentice, as was their lead maintenance manager who oversees a 200,000-square-foot facility and all of the organization’s machines. He started with just three people in maintenance and now he manages a team of seven, all apprentices turned team leaders. “One of our largest customers, SpaceX, has one of our ex-apprentices as their manufacturing team lead. He was a team leader even during his time as an apprentice. This demonstrates the effectiveness of the organization’s program, as one of their apprentices sat in front of SpaceX engineers to review a part while still in the apprentice phase,” added Simmons.


MSI is not just developing future employees; but nurturing young people. Impacting lives is at the core of their company mission. One of the ways they do this is through CORE, a program where every employee gathers once a month in groups of 10 to 15 to discuss what’s going well in their lives, any challenges they’re facing and what’s optimistic at the company. This forum creates a space where individuals can realize they’re not alone in their experiences, fostering a supportive environment. “It’s also a chance for our team to understand if underlying issues affect someone’s work performance, whether a personal struggle or a life event.” Simmons continued, “Our apprentices particularly appreciate this aspect as they learn about budgeting finance and participate in our 401(k) program. They gain insights into managing stocks, bonds and making decisions like leasing or buying a car for the first time. We also cover topics related to health. One parent even expressed gratitude for our efforts, noting that sometimes young adults are more receptive to advice from non-parental figures. This holistic approach equips our apprentices with valuable life skills and creates a sense of community and support within our company.”
MSI encourages its workforce to explore new things. “We provide reading lists and encourage them to read books that broaden their perspectives. Our CEO often emphasizes that we’re not just producing quality parts for industries like aerospace and medicine but also nurturing individuals. We want our employees to thrive at work and in their personal lives. This emphasis on culture makes our workplace welcoming for apprentices, allowing them to feel a sense of belonging and opportunity,” stated Simmons.
“When apprentices enter our program through the consortium, they have around 30 other employers to choose from, yet many of them select us. I used to wonder why, thinking about the amazing parts we manufacture for companies like SpaceX and our top-notch equipment. However, they often tell me it’s because of the sense of family they feel here. They want a place where they can learn without feeling awkward asking questions. It’s not just about a job or a career for them; it’s also about finding a personal connection. Our company culture fosters this environment where they can truly feel that sense of belonging and support,” Simmons affirmed.

Re-Entry Program

MSI is using the experience they gained to facilitate the apprenticeship program and establish a re-entry program for incarcerated individuals. “We believed that individuals would have a great opportunity to gain formal hours while incarcerated, especially since different locations have varying programs with people working with them. Some community colleges collaborate with prison systems in our area, aligning with our existing education partners.” The process involves presenting the population with apprenticeship opportunities, where they apply and meet specific criteria. They would then facilitate the transfer to locations with work release options and employers willing to offer apprenticeships. They could participate in on-the-job training in the work release program. What’s compelling about this setup is that the money they earn while still in prison would be deposited into their account, providing financial security for their future.
Imagine this scenario: perhaps incarcerated individuals have children to support. With this program, they can send money home or save it for when released, giving them a financial foundation to start anew. Knowing they have a job waiting for them upon release adds a layer of stability. “I recently conducted a simulation with individuals in Guilford County to understand their challenges upon reentry. We explored the requirements imposed by the state, the struggle to secure employment, and the difficulty with transportation. During this four-week simulation, I found myself back in jail three times for violating parole, shedding light on the complexities and obstacles faced by those reentering society. It was eye-opening for me just as an employer,” remarked Simmons. 
“I believe other organizations must explore apprenticeship programs. There’s always talk about thinking outside the box and while this may seem unconventional for some, it’s not as risky as it might appear. There are successful models to learn from and I’m eager to pay that forward, just as others have helped me. Many of my colleagues share this enthusiasm, as we all want more young individuals to have the same opportunities we’ve witnessed through these programs.” Simmons continued, “We envision its expansion into various industries, from medical to automotive to field services like plumbing and electrical work. Encouraging more employers to learn about and adopt these programs in different sectors would create invaluable connections with students eager for these opportunities. It’s a mutually beneficial relationship waiting to happen. I firmly believe that our state could lead as the premier job creator through skill training programs like youth apprenticeships, paving the way for a brighter future for employers and tomorrow’s skilled workforce.”
“Winning the Workforce Leadership Award is genuinely gratifying. Our programs have been a labor of love, with significant time and effort invested in their development. While we don’t necessarily need an award to validate their effectiveness, receiving this recognition is undoubtedly affirming. It’s a nod that says, ‘Yes, what you’re doing is different and unique.’ Hopefully, our story will inspire other companies to consider similar initiatives. We were inspired by another company that had success with this approach, and it showed us that it’s not as risky as it might seem. By sharing our story and receiving this award, we hope to encourage other companies to embrace change, transform their culture and move forward in this progressive way,” asserted Simmons.