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McDowell Apprenticeship Program Celebrates New Partner: Marion Machine

In recognition of the successes and value of registered apprenticeships in rebuilding local, state and national economies, U.S. Secretary of Labor Martin Walsh recently promoted the week of November 14-20 as National Apprenticeship Week, and NC Governor Roy Cooper proclaimed the period as Apprenticeship Week in North Carolina. McDowell Technical Community College, which earlier this year received grants to expand and promote its own McDowell Apprenticeship Program, also highlighted apprenticeship programs on the colleges social media sites this past week.   

“More and more local manufacturers recognize the value of apprenticeship programs as a solution to help fill the growing number of openings in their skilled workforce,” said Dr. Brian S. Merritt, MTCC President. “With new funding from the state to assist employers with a portion of the labor costs during the first two years of an apprentice’s employment, there is an even greater incentive for employers to initiate or expand apprenticeship programs.”

The newest partner to the McDowell Apprenticeship Program (MAP) is Marion Machine.

Jason Jornigan Welding Apprentice
Parker Simmons Welding Apprentice

The incentive to hire apprentices is much more than financial or simply filling job openings at Marion Machine. General Manager Patrick Ellis, who is also a McDowell County Commissioner, says that it’s about the long-term payoff in terms of building a safe, quality workforce.

“We have a machinist who came through an apprenticeship program probably 30 or 35 years ago, and he is one of our better employees,” said Ellis. “That’s the kind of employee I am looking for—loyal employees who are committed to quality and safety. The type of welding and machining we do at Marion Machine is unique, and there is no room for poor quality work or disregard for safety. You can’t play here,” he said.

Indeed, on a recent tour of the company’s facilities, Ellis pointed at one piece of equipment after another whose weight was measured in tens of thousands of pounds—with hardly anything less than 60,000 pounds. Marion Machine is the country’s leading servicer of large-scale rock crushing equipment—massive rock-crushing equipment. 128,000 pounds here, 80,000 pounds there and so forth.

“Part of the state curriculum for our apprentice-training program deals specifically with safety, but I can’t think of anywhere that safety is more important than here,” said Ellis. “Employees who aren’t constantly aware of their surroundings and focused on what they’re doing can put themselves and their co-workers in harm’s way. If you’re moving a rock crusher that weighs thousands and thousands of pounds and you aren’t focused on safety, you can lose your job.”

Marion Machine employee
Patrick Ellis, Production Manager, Marion Machine

There are currently four welding apprentices at Marion Machine, although they have room for another welder or two in the future. At some point, Ellis would also like to consider having a machining apprentice. For now, however, he is focused on getting this group of apprentices fully trained. “As far as I’m concerned, apprenticeships are a win-win for everyone—companies and employees. For example, I can get folks in here and train them on our specific work cells and that makes them more valuable to us as an employee, but it also improves the quality of education for them. There are no drawbacks to the program as I see it.”

All four of the company’s current apprentices have completed the state portion of their training through McDowell Tech, and each is working in paid positions at the company at least 40 hours per week. The entire apprenticeship program requires 4000 hours of on-the-job training, which equates to two years of work. Students receive academic degrees from McDowell Tech when they complete the program.

Ellis had high praise for Clay Dowdle, McDowell Tech’s welding instructor, and Charlie Milling, a regional apprenticeship consultant at ApprenticeshipNC. “These guys have been very helpful and open and have been out here seeing what we’re doing. It has been a very positive experience.” Dowdle has worked with the company to find students who are a good fit for the company and Milling, for example, has helped the company integrate automated, machine-specific training into the apprenticeship curriculum.

“There are basically 8 different work steps that I want to see our folks learn, including crane operations,” said Ellis. Unlike traditional industrial operations where work product can be moved either manually by hand, or with small forklifts and such, almost every major piece of equipment that gets moved at Marion Machine is moved by crane.

But crane operations is not the only unique piece of apprenticeship training at the facility. All welding students learn mig and tig welding, for example, but at Marion Machine, stress relief welding is an essential part of operations. Stress relief welding is a heat treatment process that occurs “post weld”—after the weld—to reduce the physical stresses in a weld and reduce the possibility of weld failure, cracking or fracture. Heat treatment takes on a whole new meaning at this company, however. Most welds at Marion Machine are heated to 1150 degrees for a specified number of hours and then slowly cooled to achieve a solid weld that is as stress-free as possible.

Ellis is justifiably proud of the company’s apprenticeship program, as well as the benefits they give to apprentices and employees. After 90 days, employees and apprentices are entitled to health, life, vision and dental insurance, short and long-term disability, employee assistance, as well as a 401K program with a generous matching program (50/50 match on the first $3,000, for example, and additional after that). The company also offers flexible scheduling, within reason.

“More importantly,” said Ellis, “we are giving our apprentices a chance to work in a world-class machine shop right here in Marion.”

“Patrick is right. The success of Marion Machine’s partnership with the McDowell Apprenticeship Program is a win-win for everyone, but especially our economy,” said Merritt, the MTCC President. “When we get our students in the workforce faster, earning family-sustaining wages, and build a solid pipeline of skilled employees for our industries, our local and regional economies are secondary beneficiaries. We look forward to continuing our relationship with Patrick and Marion Machine and many other companies who have recently initiated or expanded apprenticeships with the college.”

To learn more about apprenticeship programs at McDowell Tech, visit or contact Thomas Champ, Work-Based Learning Coordinator (828-659-0454, [email protected]) , or Stacy Buff, Associate Vice-President for Workforce Development (828-652-0663, [email protected]).

To apply for open positions at Marion Machine, visit and click on one of the job specific links.

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