Ask small-business owners for a list of management woes, and the lack of skilled workers is likely to be near the top. Anincreasing number of companies, such as Jet Products, in Phoenix, are taking steps to address that problem.

Over a 10-year period, Jet, a precision-machining facility with annual revenues of $7 million, has apprenticed nearly50 students, mostly high-school seniors recruited through the local school district's cooperative education program.Apprentices are paid $6 an hour for a 20-hour work week that includes operating shop-floor machinery, as well as formalclassroom training from Jet's team leaders. The students work after school four days a week, from 4 p.m. to 9 p.m.

According to Jet vice-president Jim Perlow, Jet's apprenticeship program not only gives the company the opportunity toscreen and train future workers (about 20 apprentices are still with Jet, now as full-time employees) but also givesstudents a real-world context for what they're studying in school. "Once they're in the work world," says Perlow, "theysee the reason for continuing their education."

If the students' grades are up to par and Jet hires them full time, the company will pay all future education costs toward anassociate's degree in manufacturing technology. In fact, that education benefit extends to all full-time employees. "We'retrying to teach them that education is a continuous process," he notes.

"We're better positioned in the marketplace because our employees are younger, more easily motivated, and better educated,"says Perlow. "Right now, our strength is in all these young people."