By James Mitchell| Crain’s Custom Media

Students enrolled in combined educational and hands-on training programs may not yet know everything about their chosen field, but they know a good thing when they experience it.

Neil Cushard, a 28-year-old network security apprentice from Plymouth, said the value of his classroom education is matched, if not exceeded, by the on-the-job experience.

“I couldn’t put a price on what I’ve learned so far,” Cushard said. “They throw as much at you as possible, and you have access to customer environments and directly interfacing with them.”

Cushard didn’t know what to expect last year when he began an expected 18-month apprenticeship for Southfield-based IT-hosting company Secure 24.

He’d briefly attended community college with thoughts of another field, but the lure of computer technology remained strong, along with a need for a structured, goal- and job-oriented program. The apprenticeship offered flexibility in scheduling his coursework at Oakland Community College, which set the pace for the on-the-job experience he’d sought.

“Everything I’ve learned in classes has been directly applicable,” Cushard said. Classroom lessons are routinely modified, he said, with input from the company’s engineers and supervisors that keep the program current in the decidedly evolving field of computer security.

For younger trainees, experiential programs such as the Michigan Advanced Technology Training (MAT2) provide an entry into the working world. Kelsey Erne, a 21-year-old from Warren, has balanced OCC courses with mechatronics work at Auburn Hills-based Brose North America Inc. for more than a year. The classroom foundation has been important, she said, but time on the clock at the company’s three regional facilities has provided more than she expected.

“The on-the-job learning is what will make a difference,” Erne said. “Getting a look at how a company is run and learning the soft skills – being on time, finding something to do and making yourself available – are the most important things.”

Applying an apprenticeship model to learning the skills needed in a technology-driven workplace has, Erne said, provided on-site application of educational theory. The real-world environment took her by surprise, but the classroom knowledge paid off.

“The first work period was kind of a struggle,” Erne said. “But once I went to the plant, the ‘a-ha’ light bulb moment hit. This is where something is used and how it works.”

That approach suited Eric Kilburn, a 29-year-old student from Ortonville in the second of a three-year machine builder apprenticeship at Heller Machine Tools in Troy.

“I’m a do-er more than a talker,” said Kilburn. “I like to see how things work.

Kilburn said the “reverse classroom” approach appealed to him as he works toward an applied sciences associate degree.

“You’re able to see if this is something you want to do with your life,” Kilburn said. “It helps you figure out the career you want to pursue.”

The educational aspect, he said, is important both for the fundamentals provided but also the updated curriculum to match current conditions.

“To have people from the industry explain what’s needed right now is great,” Kilburn said. “It couldn’t be a better time for a program like this, let alone in Michigan. It seemed like skilled trades were becoming a thing of the past. I want to help rebuild Detroit, not tear it down.”

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