Eighteen-year-old Briona Moss has always liked building Lego sets and tinkering alongside her grandpa as he produces niche parts in his garage for Michigan International Speedway race cars.
In her younger days, the class of 2020 high school graduate would rather fashion human figures from craft materials than play with a doll or dress up in gowns and crowns.
"One time I made a life-size person out of paper and tape," Moss recalled in a phone interview. "I was about 7 [years old]. I think that's when everyone realized, 'She really does just want to make things. She's not playing around watching princesses.'"
Fast forward just over a decade and Moss is the second female apprentice at Bekum America Corp., in Williamston, Mich., the U.S. headquarters of the German extrusion blow molding machine builder, which was founded in Berlin in 1959. Moss joined Bekum's in-house training program with five young men. Their apprenticeships will lead them into careers as electricians, welder/fabricators, machinists and machine assembly.
"It feels like the next step on a natural path, but it is kind of a breakthrough," Moss said. "It's not something you see every day. A lot of people are super excited for me and will say, 'Wow, manufacturing is actually branching out to more females. It's not just male-dominated anymore.'"
Bekum works with a career connection agency and reaches out to high schools in three neighboring counties to find most of its apprenticeship candidates, according to Bekum America Vice President and Chief Financial Officer Owen Johnston.
The company offers a four-year program that pays apprentices a salary to train and work at Bekum, and it covers their costs for community college, including books.
"Upon completion of the apprenticeship program, they are debt-free from tuition and have earned 60 college credits and approximately their associate degree," Johnston said in an email. "Many continue studying for a bachelor's degree for which the company offers a tuition assistance program."
Moss learned about the program from a high school acquaintance who had been a Bekum apprentice for a year. Moss was working on an assembly line at Spartan Motors Inc. at the time.
"I was putting trucks together and all of that, but I wasn't doing too many exciting things," Moss said.
The friend told her about his work and studies related to building the machines that produce hollow containers for food and beverages, consumer and industrial packaging, pharmaceutical bottles, pouches and vials, and automotive fuel tanks.
Moss said she hurried to apply.
"He had been here for a year and he showed me some projects that really got me interested," Moss said. "I was able to sign up and get accepted before the last day. I was racing the deadline a little bit, but it worked out in the end."
Moss said she started in July after a signing-day celebration that will be publicized by the local paper like college athlete commitments.
"Being recognized at the beginning felt really good," Moss said. "I feel very supported and good about being here."
The signing days are a Bekum apprentice tradition where "every step of the progress is celebrated," Johnston said. The apprentices' families are invited to be part of the occasion, meet company executives and tour the plant.
"We believe it is a great launching pad for establishing a career at Bekum, not just getting a job," Johnston said. "It is Bekum's belief that the careers the apprentices are pursuing is the alternate four-year degree and as such the parents of the apprentices are Bekum's partner in assuring the newly appointed apprentice's work hard to assure their success."
In addition to Moss, the latest apprentice recruits include Connor Blankenship, Jackson Taylor, Jeremiah Davis, Henry Peterson and Gage Rocheleau.
A month into her apprenticeship, Moss said she feels self-motivated.
"I want to show off the skills I have and learn more. I definitely don't want to be stuck in a career where I won't learn new things and see new things every day," Moss said. "Manufacturing is one of those careers that's constantly changing. You're always learning. There's always something new to do. I find that super stimulating and exciting."
Moss's apprenticeship comes on the heels of Ashley Carr, a mechatronics apprentice who travels for Bekum to service machines for customer needs.
"We pride ourselves in breaking the gender barriers in manufacturing, especially among young people," Johnston said. "We choose our entire workforce solely on their qualifications, and we truly believe everyone, regardless of gender, race or creed, is capable of being successful on the job."
Bekum America has 138 employees, including 22 women.