Michael Braswell was working on a warehouse loading dock when Schindler Elevator decided to build an escalator-manufacturing plant in the...

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RALEIGH, N.C. — Michael Braswell was working on a warehouse loading dock when Schindler Elevator decided to build an escalator-manufacturing plant in the middle of a cornfield in southeastern North Carolina.

Fortunately for Braswell, Schindler knew it wouldn’t find trained welders, machinists and tool-and-die makers in an area better known for raising hogs. Braswell himself grew up working on farms and had no skills as a machinist. To educate the local workforce, Schindler, one of the world’s leading makers of escalators and elevators, started an apprenticeship training program and Braswell joined the first group hired by the company in 1994 to learn on the job. A dozen workers-in-training embarked on a four-year course of study and shop-floor experience.

A decade later, 11 members of that group still work at the Schindler plant, which employs about 200 people and ships to customers in North America and Latin America.

While apprenticeship programs are most common in European countries like Switzerland, where Schindler’s parent is based, employers across the United States are showing increased interest and offerings. More than half a million people were in apprentice programs last year in the United States, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, according to the U.S. Labor Department.

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Apprentices combine schoolwork with paid labor to earn national certification in a craft such as welding or carpentry. States offer taxpayer assistance — for example, by allowing specific companies to train workers at community colleges — in hopes of training a work force that will make the state more attractive to employers.

In North Carolina, candidates for apprenticeships increased by nearly 50 percent between 2002 and 2003, to about 7,000, according to the state Labor Department, which accredits and supports apprenticeship programs.

All told, nearly 15,000 North Carolina workers have completed apprenticeships or are enrolled in programs, compared with around 6,400 when Schindler was starting its program a decade ago.

Apprenticeship information

Washington state programs: www.lni.wa.gov/ TradesLicensing/ Apprenticeship/ Become/default.asp

National programs: www.doleta.gov/ atels_bat/nims.cfm

About three-quarters of the companies that run apprenticeship programs describe the program as either “very important” or “critically important,” according to a North Carolina Labor Department survey.

One is PCS Phosphate in Aurora, N.C., where about 1,000 employees mine phosphate and turn the mineral into animal feed additives and fertilizer.

Virtually every worker has completed or is working through an apprenticeship program for one of 60 trades ranging from lab technician and chemical plant operator to welder, said Tom Pasztor, a spokesman for Northbrook, Ill.-based parent Potash Corp.

“We bring people into the company and they have a certain set of skills from day one, but to advance that person and to improve their skills to better meet the needs of the operations and the demands of the job, the apprenticeship program provides them with the training and the skills that allows them to do that,” Pasztor said.

Potash also runs apprenticeship programs at operations in Florida, Georgia and Louisiana that make up 90 percent of its U.S. work force.

Schindler found that workers in rural Sampson County weren’t accustomed to shift work or metric measurements. To train the workers, the company brought in some of its top welders as teachers and the plant’s production soon exceeded the company’s original projection of 350 escalators per year.

Schindler has not needed to train permanent employees through apprenticeships in recent years, but continues to train teenagers through an apprenticeship program at local high schools.

“In the ideal world, we would like to hire people who are trained and ready to go,” human-resources manager Phyllis Dunn said.

But “we’re investing in these individuals who have given us a reason to believe that they are interested in making a career with Schindler.”

Braswell has every intention of sticking with the company that helped train him.

He’s pursuing a bachelor’s degree at Mount Olive College, hoping for a chance to move into management at the plant.

“I’m not at the end of my education by far,” he said.