n the Oconee County town of Seneca, South Carolina, not far from Lake Keowee, the BASF North American Apprenticeship Development Program launched in 2021 in partnership with Tri-County Technical College (TCTC), Apprenticeship Carolina and readySC is getting ready to welcome its fourth cohort.
Participants earn $22.50 per hour and are full-time employees while attending class one day a week at TCTC’s Oconee Campus in Westminster as part of the company’s registered apprenticeship program in process technology.
“Our company wants to grow in diversity and inclusion at this site and globally,” said Elba Lizardi, BASF Seneca site director, at the program’s launch two years ago. The company’s goal is 30% female/under-represented minority leadership by 2030.
In June I met up with Lizardi and BASF Continuous Improvement Engineer and Apprenticeship Coordinator Gene Durrance at the gleaming TCTC campus, complete with a technical lab sponsored by Duke Energy and all the classroom and conferencing amenities one would expect from a cutting-edge technical college.
“Right now we’re in a growth phase, which is why we’re looking for new ways to attract people,” says Lizardi. BASF has created more than 50 jobs at the site in the past two years and now has invested slightly over $70 million in the facility, “and we need the additional workforce to support that.”
The BASF plant is a specialty chemical catalysts manufacturing and precious metal refining facility that has over 500 employees and contractors on site — a number that’s rising. The operation deals with hazardous and valuable materials such as platinum, palladium, rhodium, ruthenium and gold. That means molten metal and heat, which means a premium on safety, which means a super-premium on technical training. That and the competitive industrial employment landscape explain the high starting hourly pay for the apprentices— the highest-paid apprenticeship in the state by 36 cents.
“We in Seneca are the one refining solution for BASF,” Lizardi says of her site. “We are gathering materials in Europe and in North America and mostly funneling them to Seneca. We run a 24/7 operation and we don’t shut down.”
The highest-value precious metals become part of BASF’s business. So do the highest-value, precious workers.
Lizardi’s team worked with TCTC to build the program based on a program deployed by BASF at its large sites in Texas, bringing Durrance in with the second cohort. “Each year we’ve made changes to curriculum, hiring and targeting,” she says, so each successive group is better prepared. Participants range from 19-year-olds with no experience to ex-military to a stay-at-home mother re-entering the workforce after 15 years. Along the way, the cohorts build their own cohesive family, says Lizardi, noting one apprentice who suffered multiple personal calamities. She found immediate support from her peers: “They engulfed her,” she says. As did BASF plant floor and corporate staff.
“It’s a big company with a big heart,” Lizardi says, noting the efforts BASF has made to extract and support staff from Ukraine, for example.
The hearts beat plenty strong in Oconee County too. Of the apprentice group dynamic, she says, “It’s cool to watch. They create their own community. They know each other’s families.”
The classroom is led by instructor Bill Edge, a retired Duke Energy engineer. Topics range from nitty-gritty tool operation and maintenance to how pumps and valves work to safety case studies, OSHA 10 certification, continuous improvement, Lean Six Sigma and leadership.
“You see them growing on the floor and in the classroom,” Durrance says, noting how the stay-at-home mom has gone from reticent to outspoken and assertive with a little coaching. “I say, ‘Pretend you’re a parent,’ ” Durrance says with a laugh. “It shows you can grow at any age. That’s what I love about this program.
“The high schools are also really getting on board with this,” he says. When he visits schools and tells students they can be making over $50,000 a year plus benefits right out of high school with a bit more education, he finds some teachers inquiring about the program too, even as the graduates continue to sign up. “We interviewed three yesterday,” he says. “They are getting the message. Teachers are telling students. It’s a pool we can draw from.”
The program has now graduated 19 apprentices in all and is aiming for a class of 10-15 in that fourth cohort. The prospect is as exciting for management as it is for the apprentices. “I can’t wait for the next,” says Durrance.
“You absolutely see the transformation,” Lizardi say. “You give them confidence in a new space. We have a lot of women because of that. They’re surviving and seeing manufacturing is not this big black hole with only men. We have mothers rooms, so if you have a family you can still come back to work. We have paternity leave too. I would say we’re very active in all levels of diversity: we raised the pride month flag June 1 as we did at all BASF sites around the world. We have an employee transitioning who shared his story and wanted us to publish it that day. We have a very active military veterans group.
“Manufacturing,” she says, “can be for anyone.”