Ask small-business owners for a list of management woes, and the lack of skilled workers is guaranteed to be near the top. But an increasing number of companies, such as $4.5-million Jet Products, have stopped blaming the educational system and started working with schools to address the problem.

Over the past eight years Phoenix-based Jet, an aerospace- machine company, has apprenticed 38 students, mostly high school juniors and seniors recruited through the local school district's cooperative education program. Apprentices are paid starting wages for a 20-hour workweek that includes operating shop-floor machinery, as well as getting formal classroom training from Jet's team leaders -- an element of the program that vice-president Jim Perlow says helped "co-opt the older workers into the educational process."

The students work after school, from 4 p.m. to 9 p.m., four days a week. According to Perlow, Jet's apprenticeship program not only gives the company the opportunity to screen and train future workers (13 of the apprentices are still with Jet) but also provides students with a real-world context for what they're studying in school. "Once they're in the work world," says Perlow, "they see the reason for continuing their education."

And continue it they do. Anyone who wants to be considered for a full-time job at Jet upon graduation must complete some course work at a local community college. "We don't care if they take just one course," says Perlow. "We're trying to teach them that education is a continuum." If the students' grades are up to par, Jet hires them full-time and pays all future higher-education costs -- a benefit that extends to all workers. The effect on the company? At a time of intense competition for skilled labor, more than 70% of Jet's employees have never worked anywhere else, and nearly all have had some higher education. "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 all these kids."

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