About a year ago, S.C. Rep. Don Wells, R-Aiken, visited the Aiken County Career Center and was delighted to return on Monday.

“I'm astounded at the programs they have available,” he said during a reception at the center. “I haven't been able to stop talking about this.”

Before giving a tour of the facility to several elected officials, Career Center Director Brooks Smith and MTU America executive Joerg Klisch discussed the apprentice program that Klisch has spearheaded at the German company's Graniteville facility.

The Career Center provides a wide range of career-oriented programs for high school students from five high schools. Currently, nine of them spend part of their school day there, but also are trained several hours a week at the company, which builds large diesel engines.

“If you go to the Boeing website,” Smith said, “the number for apprenticeships is 18 years old where you have to start. The partnership here is for 16- and 17-year-olds.

When MTU America does is unique, said Klisch, who recently won a national award for his efforts. The parent company has facilities in Germany, where a similar apprentice program is entrenched for younger students.

“What worked for us in Germany could work here,” Klisch said of the initiative's planning. “Why not try dual education here?”

The Career Center also provides a wide range of programs – health science, machine tools, automotive training, computer-aided design, fire management, electricity and more.

“You're getting high school students for an apprenticeship or other programs before they graduate from high school,” Wells said. “You can do this even for those who plan on going to college for a four-year degree.”

Ronnie Young, the Aiken County Council chairman, expressed his appreciation for MTU's partnership and the opportunities the Career Center provides for students to learn.

“These are hands-on experiences you can't get anywhere else,” Young said. “It's another example of industry and education working together for the betterment of our community. ... These are jobs we didn't have 10 or 12 years ago, providing more opportunities for them.”

Another House member, Bill Taylor of Aiken, calls the Career Center amazing with a graduation rate of 92 to 93 percent. White-collar people need tradesmen who can do the work the white-collar people can't do, Taylor said.

“We need the plumbers, electricians and welders,” he said. “I'm so impressed with this facility and its participation in the partnership they're developing. That's a step in the right direction.”

Senior writer Rob Novit is the Aiken Standard's education reporter and has been with the newspaper since September 2001. He is a native of Walterboro and majored in journalism at the University of Georgia.