Riley Thompson finished his junior year at West Valley High School in Yakima this spring, and last week began entering coding into machines and using mills to produce airplane parts for Pexco Aerospace in Union Gap.

It’s paid work. Thompson has a mentor guiding him along the way and will earn high school credits.

“It’s good because just by watching them you learn so much,” he said of the veteran aerospace mechanics he is learning from. “Just standing back with your hands in your pockets you could learn from them — and I have.”

He’s one of just 93 students statewide, and 15 in the Yakima Valley, participating in a youth apprenticeship program through Aerospace Joint Apprenticeship Committee, or AJAC.

It’s the largest youth apprenticeship program in the state, an indicator of how uncommon high school apprenticeships are.

The students work a total of 2,000 hours for companies like Pexco or Yakima Chief Hops over roughly two years. The youth apprentices in the state can earn $28,000 over the course of their work experience, a number that will rise as the state’s minimum wage increases, said Aaron Ferrell, communications manager for AJAC.

Employers pay the salaries. Meanwhile, state and federal funds cover the cost of an education component in which they complete three apprentice-level courses and earn high school credits for graduation, up to 15 college credits, and a short-term college certificate.

Tacoma and West Valley school districts were the first two districts in the state to partner with AJAC, together boasting 17 student apprentices in the first year.

Now it its third year, AJAC’s youth program has 12 participating districts. Yakima School District is a new participant, with YV-Tech sending four students from its automation program launching in the fall through apprenticeships this summer.

“For students, it’s opening their eyes to the opportunities that exist that are not traditional routes” toward future employment, said Dennis Matson, YV-Tech’s principal.

Matson said the school’s automation program was developed in response to industry demand in the Valley, and the apprenticeship opportunity helps meet local companies’ interest in “grow your own” employees.

The apprenticeship program also helps draw enthusiastic employees to local companies by giving them a taste of the work environment, said Joe Glover, president of Pexco.

While Pexco is a top employer in the Valley, the company found during a job fair a few years ago that only a handful of roughly 1,000 students they spoke to were familiar with it. Soon, they partnered with AJAC to bring in apprentices.

“It’s a mutual benefit,” said Glover. “It’s in line with getting the Pexco name out there and helping solve our own problem of finding talented labor within the community or outside … (and) I think it’s a great opportunity for the businesses to home-grow the talent and get some good employees some experience without a ton of cost.”

Ferrell of AJAC said roughly a third of participants continue working for the company they were placed with, while another third go onto adult apprenticeships and the remainder go on to study engineering at a four-year college.

Steven Sanchez, another West Valley student wrapping up his apprenticeship with Pexco after graduating from high school this spring, will begin studying engineering at Central Washington University in the fall.

“I hope to go to college to be an engineer, and hopefully (this) hands-on experience would translate to designing,” he said. “Being a machinist, you get the engineer’s part and you see what they want you to do, and sometimes it’s not possible or it’s really difficult.”

Having worked in the shop, he said, he’ll be more tuned in to these details to minimize time wasted, he said.

Riley Christianson, a YV-Tech student preparing to enter the automation program in the fall, is in his first week of an apprenticeship with Pexco.

“I’m hoping to continue either working here or somewhere else. I definitely need a lot more training,” he said.

But as a high school student, he’s already getting some of the hands-on experience to someday enter the workforce, as well as lessons in adulthood, he said.

Reach Janelle Retka at or on Twitter: @janelleretka