Like many students, Courtney Smith always planned to attend a state college after high school graduation. She thought about attending Western Carolina or N.C. State University, but knew she’d likely enter with an undeclared major.
“I was possibly interested in forensics, but I wasn’t sure,” she explained.” As one of four kids, I didn’t want my mother to have to help pay for my education when I was having a tough time deciding what I wanted to do.”
Courtney’s high school logistics teacher, Mr. Art Close, opened her eyes to another path — apprenticeship. He encouraged her that going straight to a four-year college wasn’t the only way to become successful.
“Mr. Close was a huge advocate of Guilford Apprenticeship Partners (GAP) because students can get paid while they work and receive an education without going into debt,” Courtney said.
It wasn’t the norm by any means, but Courtney put herself out there to try something new. She said her mom ultimately convinced her to go for it, and her friends were extremely supportive of her decision to forego the traditional college path and apply for an apprenticeship spot through GAP.
Before she knew it, she had landed a position with MSI, Machine Specialities Inc. — a leading contract machining and metal finishing specialist that manufactures precision parts.
“When I toured MSI, I fell in love with the atmosphere,” she explained. “I was always interested in mechanical engineering, but the family environment and hands-on work available at MSI confirmed it was the right choice.”
Courtney is engaged in regular rotations within the company, giving her the opportunity to learn about how things work in multiple departments.
“The goal is to find out what area interests me most so that I can decide if I want to make a career there.”
After shadowing for a few days in each area, Courtney was able to begin running machines independently. “The tool and die area really interests me because there is always something new to work on,” she said. “In other areas you might spend a whole week making one part, but in tool and die, every day is different.”
Courtney’s confidence has skyrocketed through her hands-on work experience. She admits that when she first jumped in, she wasn’t sure if it was for her.
“It’s kind of a man’s world,” she explained. “I wasn’t sure if I would be able to reach my potential at MSI, but after a couple of days, I saw that I was capable.”
Courtney wants girls to know that they shouldn’t shy away from apprenticeship, or jobs in fields like machining or mechanical engineering.
“It is a male-dominated industry, but if girls go after these positions they will see that they can do the job just as well, if not better, than a man — and succeed.”
Courtney is still considering attending N.C. State University after she completes the apprenticeship program, and if she does, MSI will help her attain her degree in mechanical engineering. In addition to working at MSI, she is taking classes to earn an Associate in Applied Science degree at Guilford Technical Community College as part of her apprenticeship. Those classes will count as credit toward a four-year degree.
“Someday, I want to run a company similar to MSI,” she said. “This experience – learning about all the different parts that make up the company – will allow me to be a more engaged owner/operator.
As for the apprenticeship, Courtney says it has been beneficial in a multitude of ways. In addition to getting on-the-job experience, a paycheck, and an education, she has received life advice from program mentors, as well as information on personal finances, taxes, and retirement.
“They care about us as people, not just workers,” she said. “It’s a great opportunity for anyone; if you think this is where you belong, it’s worth going after it.”