Chip Singleton has lived his whole life in Canton, North Carolina, a small town tucked in a narrow valley in the state’s mountainous western corner. He met his wife, Patty, at the Pisgah High School — the only high school in town — and 25 years later, they both teach there; she drafting and he metal shop.

But Singleton’s Great Smoky Mountains roots didn’t stop him from seeking inspiration in faraway places. He specifically zeroed in on Germany, Europe’s economic dynamo famous for its rigorous apprenticeship programs that prepare teenagers for manufacturing jobs. Students in these programs split their time between the classroom and the factory floor of a sponsor company, where they work side by side with its employees. When Singleton read an article about the German model in a newspaper, he was so impressed by the results that wanted to give his students the same chance.

The timing was good. After Canton lost its paper mill — the main source of employment for decades — high school graduates were struggling to find jobs. But in 2005, a handful of students landed at Smiths Aerospace in Asheville, some 25 miles away, and Singleton got an unexpected call from the plant’s hiring manager. Smiths, which is now part of GE Aviation, was making jet engine components and flight management systems, and the company was having a hard time finding enough qualified workers. Could Singleton send more students? “I knew they were willing to pay to make sure they had the talent they needed,” Singleton says. “I came up with the idea of an apprenticeship.”

 

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