Apprenticeship 321 program gives females the opportunity for a career in manufacturing and a cost-free education
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Apprenticeship 321 program gives females the opportunity for a career in manufacturing and a cost-free education

Since it was launched in 2015, Gaston College’s Apprenticeship 321 program has given individuals the opportunity to get a cost-free education while working and earning a salary at area companies. Forty-four apprentices have participated in the program thus far and 20 of them have completed the requirements for a certificate from Gaston College, have received U.S. Department of Labor certifications as Journeyworkers in their jobs, and are currently employed by the companies that provided their training. Ten new apprentices signed contracts with their employers in September 2018, bringing the number of current apprentices to 19—the largest cohort of apprentices since the program began.

According to the Department of Labor, there has been a 42 percent growth in the number of active apprentices since 2013. In 2017, 92.7 percent of those completing registered apprenticeships were men and 7.3 percent were women. Gaston College actively recruits females for its Apprenticeship 321 program, and the group of 19 apprentices includes three females, or over 15.7 percent—more than double the U.S. average.

Aspen Brown standing in from of machinery

Aspen Brown

One of those apprentices is Aspen Brown, who is apprenticing as a Mechatronics Technician at The Timken Company, a world-leading manufacturer of bearings and mechanical power transmission products.

When Brown was attending East Lincoln High School, she took computer programming and drafting classes along with other classes she thought would acquaint her with areas that she might want to explore as a career. She saw a presentation from Timken about the opportunities there, and when she learned about Apprenticeship 321 she felt it was something she wanted to pursue.

“I really liked the Timken presentation,” said Brown. “The people at Timken and Tanya Osbia, the Student Success Coach with the Gaston College Apprenticeship 321 program, were the types of people I would want to work with and become friends with.” After reviewing the classes that Brown had taken and learning about her interests, Timken suggested the Mechatronics specialty for her apprenticeship. Mechatronics includes a combination of mechanical engineering, robotics, electrical engineering and computer science. Brown joined the Apprenticeship 321 program in September 2018.

Although males are in the majority in this field, Brown does not feel that being female in the job presents any gender-specific challenges. “There is still a job that needs to be done,” she said, “and it is expected of me to be able to do the same job as someone else, male or female. There are already plenty of women that work at Timken so I don’t feel as if I am treated any differently.”

Brown, who is 18 years old, is looking ahead to the future. “My short-term goal is to excel in my classes and finish the apprenticeship program,” she said. “My long-term goal is to get as many degrees and certificates as possible (that are relevant, of course). There would be absolutely no reason for me to stop after the apprenticeship program. The sky is the limit.”

The support and encouragement Brown has received have been widespread. “I am so grateful to my mentor at Timken, Eddie Flowers; Jill Hendrix, the Apprenticeship 321 Coordinator at Gaston College; Doug Smith, my supervisor; Tanya Osbia; the other apprentices at Timken, Don Laney, Brandon Lambert, and Randy Craig; Roger Eger, the Lincolnton plant manager at Timken; and finally, the many people that I have met and become friends with at Timken and Gaston College.”

Brown’s mentor Eddie Flowers, is a Senior Process Analyst at Timken. “I can’t say enough good things about Aspen,” he said. “She is eager to learn, has a great attitude, is excited about the work she is doing, and she fits in with her entire team. She is interested in becoming an Electrician and I have no doubt that she will be great. Her co-workers like her, and, as she progresses, she’ll have the opportunity to meet and work with many other Timken employees. I know that she has a very promising future here.”

Flowers is impressed with the Apprenticeship 321 program as well. “I love it,” he says. “I went through an apprenticeship 28 years ago so I am a big advocate of the concept. Gaston College’s program is very exciting. The classrooms and technology labs in their Center for Advanced Manufacturing [CAM] give the apprentices and other students an excellent learning environment. We are fortunate to have this facility in our area.”

Brown’s family is also enthusiastic about the Apprenticeship 321 program. “They love it,” said Brown. “My parents are glad that I have found something I enjoy, and that I won’t go into debt with student loans. I have a 15-year-old sister who hopes to find something similar for herself, and two little brothers (ages 4 and 5) who like to hear about what I do at work.”

Harley Reynolds in front of machine - sitting down

Harley Reynolds

Another of the female apprentices is Harley Reynolds, 23, who has been working with Keystone Powdered Metal Company in Cherryville for five years. Keystone is an innovation and technology leader in the North American powder metal industry. When Matt Jacobs, the company’s Engineering and Technology Manager, told Reynolds about bringing the Apprenticeship 321 program to Keystone, she was eager to participate. “I like to see females doing what has been considered ‘males’ work,’ and I would like to make a difference when it comes to not many females in the Mechanical profession,” she said. Reynolds signed her apprenticeship contract with Keystone in September and is currently working as a Die-Setter.

“I met Harley on February 26, 2018, my first day at Keystone Powdered Metal,” said Jacobs. “She was setting up a 320 Ton Sizing Press on a gear for Ford. At this time she was the only one training on these machines. Her trainer has 30 years of experience. I knew when I started at Keystone that I wanted to build an Apprenticeship Program with Gaston College. I had already done this with my previous company. Harley was first to ask if she could be a part of this program if I started one. She is the one female Die-Setter Cherryville has and the only one in Keystone Powdered Metal Company. I am proud of Harley and feel she has a bright future with Keystone PM.”

Reynolds attended North Gaston High School for two years and Cherryville High School for a year and a half, and graduated a semester early. She would like to continue her education after she completes the apprenticeship program. “For the time being,” she said, “my education goal would be to get all good grades. I would like to try to make it on the dean’s list because my mom did when she attended Gaston College.” Her career plans are to become an Engineer.

Reynolds has encountered a bit more resistance as a female on the job than has Brown. “I feel like I get treated very differently at work because I am a female,” she said. “I have noticed some men may not want to teach females about the job, but that has not discouraged me.”

Despite the challenges, Reynolds has received a lot of support and encouragement. “There are three other people who started their apprenticeships at Keystone when I did and are attending Gaston College. We support each other as much as we can,” she said. “Our mentors at work are there for us, too. My dad works at Keystone also and he is very supportive. My entire family is very proud of me for being in the Apprenticeship 321 program, and they are also proud that so far I am the only female Die-Setter at Keystone.”

Both Reynolds and Brown feel that the Apprenticeship 321 program has been an excellent opportunity. “The apprenticeship experience has been all-around awesome for me, because I did not know that Gaston College had an apprenticeship program,” said Reynolds. “It is hard juggling work and school and homework, so it is a little stressful—especially trying to have a social life outside of school and work—but so far it has all worked out.”

Brown agrees. “It has been awesome, to say the least,” she said. “Timken and Gaston College have made sure that I have every resource that I need at my disposal to be successful and, more than that, they really do care about me as an individual. I am very glad I decided to join the program.”

Participants in the Apprenticeship 321 program receive job-specific training and a cost-free education from Gaston College while earning a salary from local employers. For more information about Apprenticeship Week and the Apprenticeship 321 program, visit or contact Jill Hendrix, Apprenticeship 321 Coordinator, at 704-922-6521 or

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