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Seizing the competitive advantage

Furman University’s Undergraduate Evening Studies program was just what Paul Santos was looking for when he wanted to ramp up his career and move into management at General Electric’s Greenville gas turbine plant.

Santos, operations leader of the machinist apprenticeship program at GE, had an associate degree and more than 25 years of manufacturing experience. What he needed when he began Furman’s continuing education program was an education that helped him learn management skills.

With four years of night classes, he earned his bachelor of arts degree with an emphasis in business administration while working full-time at GE.

The continuing education program “is very convenient for working adults,” said Beth Crews, director of Furman’s Undergraduate Evening Studies. About 100 to 125 students participate in the program, and she would like to see enrollment grow.

Santos, 58, began his manufacturing journey in 1973 as a high school-trained machinist. In 1978, he moved from Rhode Island to the Springfield, Mass.-Hartford, Conn., region, the aviation corridor of the Northeast, and entered an apprenticeship program there, graduating fourth highest of 150 students in 1985.

“I was introduced to CNC (computer numerical control) or automated manufacturing,” he said. “I really liked where technology was going. It was new and innovative and far-reaching.”

After graduating from Asnuntuck Community College in Connecticut with an associate of science degree in computer science with an emphasis in graphics, he joined Barnes Aerospace as a full-time CAD/CAM programmer in 1988.

Several years later, he lectured and wrote a paper on a new machining process. An employee at GE’s Florence facility discovered the paper and asked Santos, whose company was a GE vendor, to help the plant get a machine running correctly. After three to four months of calls and emails, the machine was operating the way that it should.

About a year later in 1996, the man told him of an opening for a programmer in the Florence plant.

“The opportunity sounded great,” Santos said, and South Carolina was an interesting location. The move to Greenville came after he attended a tool show here in 1999. While in Greenville, he toured the plant and met Charlie Howell, then the CAD/CAM manager. The two clicked, and since the Greenville facility was ramping up and looking for programmers, he applied.

When Bill Standera, then the plant manager, interviewed him, “he encouraged me to consider going for a four-year degree if I wanted to go into management. I wanted to grow my career as much as possible,” Santos said.

After looking at various Upstate schools, Santos applied to the Furman Undergraduate Evening Studies program in 2000 and graduated in 2004. “The last semester was extremely stressful” as three necessary classes were offered only in the spring, he said. He worked 45 to 50 hours a week, took 10 hours of evening classes, did regular home chores and cooked for his family.

But it was worthwhile as he ended up with his degree, “a great education and a network of friends I’m still in touch with,” he said.

Santos said GE made his higher education possible by reimbursing his tuition costs.

“Learning and training are a big part of GE’s culture, and as a company, GE invests heavily in training for our employees,” said John Edwards, manufacturing human relations business partner for the GE Power and Water site in Greenville. “Our culture is about providing everyone who works here with opportunities to exercise and develop their talents, courage, and creativity. We believe that tuition reimbursement helps our employees grow in those areas, and by extension makes our company stronger and more competitive in the marketplace.”

Shortly after Santos graduated, he and Standera talked about the direction of his GE career.

“I told him I wanted to get in some type of leadership position in the technical area,” he said, adding he became the plant’s CAM team technical leader. Five years later, GE “started looking at expanding our workforce. We started looking for experienced machinists in the Upstate and we found there was a deficit.”

Management discussed creating an apprenticeship program for the Greenville facility. The theory behind the program, he said, is that “the best way to get talent is to grow your own talent.”

“Modern manufacturing is highly technical and requires a wide variety of skills and competencies. Over the past few years, manufacturers in the United States have been looking for contemporary and effective ways of closing the gap between what modern manufacturing demands and the skill sets available in the labor market,” Edwards said. “The Machinist Apprentice Program is an investment in our future.”

GE began recruiting for the first apprenticeship class in March of 2012, and the program launched that August with Santos as the program director. Fifteen apprentices were accepted from a pool of 600 applicants.

“We weren’t looking for experience. We were looking for people with good math skills and an aptitude for technology and curiosity about manufacturing,” he said. Only four of the first group had prior manufacturing experience. Of the 15 who began the program, 11 completed it two years later.

The first year the apprentices attend machinist classes at Greenville Technical College three days a week and spent two days in the GE shop. They rotate through every production area of the shop floor to gain experience in all aspects of building a gas turbine. The second year they spend two days in class and three days at the plant where they begin learning the equipment they will be running upon graduation.

“They’re guaranteed a job” at salaries highly competitive for the Greenville area after they complete the 20-month, five-semester program, he said.

The second group of 15 apprentices selected from a group of 550 applicants began in August 2013. The third class of 13 apprentices selected from 375 candidates will begin this month. The program also is open to the family members of employees if they meet the requirements.

Santos said he and GE are “extremely pleased” with the apprenticeship program and the close partnership the plant has with Greenville Tech.

Through Greenville Tech, GE learned about SkillsUSA, a competition open to the 350,000 technical high school and community college students in the country. They compete annually on their technical skills. Eight of 11 GE apprentices recently competed.

“My apprentices took first place at the Greenville Tech level in three categories. We took all three first places at the state level. We took second place in CNC turning” at the national level in Kansas City, Mo., he said. That’s the highest award any Greenville Tech student has earned.

The apprenticeship program has “helped to elevate the talent level on the shop floor,” he said, giving much credit to the 70 or 80 trainers on the shop floor who serve as mentors and role models for the apprentices.

Apprentices also have begun building some of the fixtures which go on equipment to hold a piece being made. That began when some manufacturing engineers needed a fixture built. The vendor they went to was going to charge $16,000 and take 12 weeks to create the fixture. When the apprentice teams agreed to build the fixture, they spent a total of $4,300—$1,100 for materials and 3,200 for labor—and built the fixture in 10 weeks.

“The quality of the work was outstanding,” he said. “One of the inspectors was so impressed she wanted us to rebuild some of the older fixtures that are wearing out.”

Tyler Burns, 24, who is entering his second year of apprenticeship, said, “It’s a pretty amazing feeling” to work on something that “they’re probably going to use for years to come.”

Rhonda Hall, 19 and also a second year of apprentice, said, “This is a career that will be here for a long time,” she said. “It’s a good field to be in. A lot of women need to learn that.”

Apprentice Josh Higgins, 21, who learned of the program from his father, a GE employee, said, “I don’t think I’ve ever learned so many new things in my life. There’s never a dull moment.”

Last updated August 5, 2022
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Clinton Colmenares
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