Pedal to the metal: Eastern Millwork apprenticeship program lets high school grads learn, earn

Amar Arslanovic isn’t worried about student loans or whether he’ll land a job when he finishes college.

Arslanovic, who graduated from Hudson County Schools of Technology’s High Tech High School in June, landed an apprenticeship with a local manufacturer that will pay for his college education while he learns on the job. 

The 18-year-old will start with a salary of $24,000 a year, with health benefits and a 401(k) plan. And when he completes his education, he is guaranteed a $70,000-a-year job.

This summer, he started his apprenticeship at Eastern Millwork, a 26-year-old custom woodworking company in Jersey City that operates a European-style dual education program called Holz Technik Academy.

Given the soaring cost of higher education, the apprenticeship program immediately appealed to the Jersey City resident.

“I’m getting the experience of working every day and I won’t have the stress of looking for a job after,” Arslanovic said. “When most people go to college, the hardest thing after is finding a job. So many college graduates can’t find jobs.”

The new apprenticeship program was designed to meet Eastern Millwork’s need for skilled employees in advanced manufacturing.

“We need to build a pipeline of workers who are specifically trained in the skills that we need,” said Andrew Campbell, president of Eastern Millwork. “We’re taking raw recruits out of high school based on their interest in technology, their interest in making things, and then building them to think mechanically.”

Campbell maintains a close relationship with High Tech High. He has paid for instructors at the high school to receive certification in Germany, he has offered summer internships to students and he donates his time to the school as well as equipment and supplies.

“He’s been very helpful in making what we do here very relevant and giving students an insight into advanced manufacturing and what it has to offer to them,” said Gregory Simon, the supervisor of the Design and Fabrication Academy.

Eastern Millwork was selected by Hudson County Schools of Technology as its 2018 Business Partner of the Year. The apprenticeship program is the next step in an evolving relationship between business and academia in Hudson County.

Graduates like Arslanovic who were accepted into Eastern Millwork’s Holz Technik Academy are participating in a program more common in European counties like Germany, where apprenticeships remain the main pathway into employment for students.

Arslanovic will receive on-the-job training in the factory along with classroom training at Hudson County College. When he completes his associate degree, he will enroll in Pittsburg State University in Kansas, with tuition paid by his employer. 

When Arslanovic steps onto the floor of Eastern Millwork as an apprentice, he will be familiar with much of the equipment on the shop floor as well as the complex automated processes that go into creating custom wood installations because of the head start he received at his county vocational-technical school.

As a student at High Tech High, Arslanovic majored in wood technology in High Tech High’s Design and Fabrication Academy. Through the program, students learn the basics of woodworking with traditional tools, as well as the advanced technical skills needed for computer-aided design and manufacturing, or CAD-CAM, and how to program CNC machines, which are controlled by computer software.

But more than learning the specific woodworking skills, students also learn about the design and fabrication process — skills that are transferable to many disciplines, High Tech High’s Simon said.

“Whether you are designing a building, or a piece of furniture, or something out of metal, there’s a process, and being able to navigate that process is critical,” Simon said. “Students have to know the limitations of the materials, of the equipment, of costs and be able to design something and see it to fruition. That’s a skill they will be able to use not only in college, but in life.”