Op-ed: How a federally-funded apprenticeship changed my life

AP Photo/David Goldman

By Joshua Swindells

November 17, 2023

I know what it’s like to feel like there’s no light at the end of the tunnel—and I also know what it’s like when a glimmer of hope appears.

My family and I moved to North Carolina from California in the early 2000s. I went to school in Asheboro, and in 2016, I moved to Salisbury. I completed middle school that year, but dropped out because of the mounting pressure to help support my elderly parents’ health needs. They’re both disabled and needed my help.

In 2018, we moved to Mocksville, where I continued caring for them. There were a good four years where things felt stagnant, until I saw a flier for something called the Highset program through NCWorks. As someone who is legally blind, I never thought I would be able to work. But I met my NCWorks mentor, Ms. Traci, who helped me get through high school and earn my diploma, get into college and get work at my college, and even discussed plans for my future. She also helped me get my driver’s license and gain independence.

With my mom on disability and both my parents being older, they have a lot of bills mounting, so my ability to work has helped our lives immensely. Our car broke down recently—which is a big deal since it’s how they get to and from their doctor appointments—and the money I earn from my job allowed us to get it fixed. If this had happened before my participation in NCWorks, it would have been impossible. My apprenticeship helped me get experience, but it also held my personal life together more and helped me support myself and my parents.

But now, the opportunities I got are at risk for others.

The Highset program is funded by the federal government through the WIOA (Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act). Before passing a continuing resolution this week to keep the government funded and avert a shutdown for at least two months, Republicans in Congress proposed severe budget cuts for next year, and one program they want to eliminate is the WIOA. I worry that when it comes time to try and pass another budget, they’ll try to end the program again.

Without this program, I would have been at a dead end job or doing back-breaking labor or work that pays little with no real way to move up.

Instead, I’m in my final semester of community collegeI just got accepted to University of North Carolina Charlotte (UNCC) as a major in computer science and minor in criminology. My ultimate goal is to work for a government entity in a cyber security department. My dream is to work for the CIA in the cybersecurity office. Cybersecurity is an ever-growing field, but has a small work pool. There are a good 160,000 job openings within the space and it’s expanding every day. I’ve always tinkered with computers, and being able to do it professionally would be amazing.

Whenever my current advisor and I look at jobs for cyber security or IT, almost every job requires experience in the IT or cyber security field, even for entry level jobs. Without programs like Highset, it’s hard to get the experience to get into these jobs, barring kids from pursuing these dreams. With this program, you’re getting real-world experience to decide if this is what you want. It gives you more options and opens your eyes.

People like me, we’re not just taking money and laying back doing nothing all day. We’re working jobs, and without funding, we wouldn’t get the experience, make connections, and set up our future. With this work experience program, if you get into a job and get experience early, that’s invaluable.

This is a wonderful program that should not be cut.

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