HOPE – An East Texas auto dealership owner/general manager in the Hope-based McLarty Ford-General Motors enterprises who admits to a love of small-town life outlined a student apprenticeship partnership for the Hope Public Schools to local business, government and non-profit leaders he believes will help local students develop life skills and benefit local business with loyal, hometown employees.
Chuck Eldridge, owner and dealer principal/general manager of Palestine Toyota and Hope Auto Ford and GM, explained the concept to a dozen local leaders during a business luncheon Tuesday at Hope High School. The luncheon was facilitated by the Hope Public Schools in partnership with the Hempstead County Economic Development Corp.
Eldridge said the concept is rooted in a successful program which has been in place in the Palestine, Texas, public schools for two years.
“This is not something that is just an idea,” Eldridge said. “One of the things we want to see today is young people staying in their hometown.”
With two decades of experience in small community life and business, Eldridge said he came to understand today’s labor market does not favor small town business.
“This program will not only introduce students to soft skills for life, but also what the workplace looks like today,” he said.
Using his automotive businesses as a proving ground for the concept, Eldridge went to Palestine school officials to make the case that local talent was leaving because today’s career paths are mostly geared to larger communities.
“This leaves businesses left to either pick from a dwindling pool or develop their own employees,” he noted.
Eldridge said the apprenticeship model can be either paid or unpaid, both of which benefit not only the student but also the employer. Unpaid apprenticeships are often tied to “community service” requirements for graduation, while paid apprenticeships bring in employees with direct local ties.
He said the concept has worked extremely well in the auto dealership business, but is easily adapted to almost any “skills based” employment such as landscaping, plumbing, electrical services, and others. He said such programs can succeed regardless whether higher education training is available locally or not.
“We have to create our own pool,” Eldridge said.
Part of the key is allowing the public schools to set the criteria for its students in the initial phase and create expectations with business partners thereafter.
“We’re trying to help student get to the next stage of their lives, and we want to help local businesses get loyal employees,” Eldridge said.
Generally, the first year of an apprenticeship program draws from high school seniors who attend classes part of the day and work in a business environment part of the day one or more days in the week.
Paid apprenticeships are generally at minimum wage, but without restrictions on advancement. Consequently, students work toward technical certifications while in school and earn income that can be used for higher education or other needs.
Eldridge said his dealerships provide scholarships applicable through the American Society of Engineers Automotive Service Excellence certification process which put graduates on an automatic success track in automotive technical services.
Hours may vary and apprenticeships may be customized to develop skills regardless of gender that generate a ready pool of new apprentice students when needed.
“I simply tell the businesses to call the school,” Eldridge said. “I stand ready to build the fire under the program. All I need from the business community is the ‘Yes’ to do it.”
HPS Superintendent Dr. Bobby Hart said the Hope Public Schools is prepared to embrace the idea. Dr. Hart invited any local business to contact himself or Eldridge to develop an apprenticeship program for them.
“We stand ready to help you take the next step,” Hart said.