Michael Scallia polishes a freshly repaired boot, a job he would have gladly offloaded to an apprentice — if he could only find one for Buddy’s shoe repair in Chattanooga. (Photo David Tulis)

All across the Chattanooga area are business  owners who would love to have a chance to meet your teenage son or daughter and interview that young person as a possible future Apprentice, intern or worker.

A persistent problem in Hamilton County among entrepreneurs and creators of value is the week stream of job candidates who come their way, young people who are willing to be trained in a particular task and to learn a profession on the job.

By David Tulis / 92.7 NoogaRadio

“I would like to have an apprentice that I would train the skill and help me out, get the shoes’ work out,” says shoe repair expert Michael Scallia of Hixson. “It could turn into a fulltime job if he learned over the summer enough.”

Mr. Scallia learned the shoe repair business from his dad, Buddy, and is a third-generation family member to run the Hixson shop.

“We’re just so covered up with work. It’s hard to get it out by myself. The dates we’re having to schedule people are so far out because I’m having to do it by myself.” He says he’s getting shoes back “end of April, and it’s just the end of February now. So we’re pushing the wait time out.”

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If he had help, he could bring in more business. “I lose the customer because they don’t want to wait.”

The homeschool student would not have to have any special skills, just ones that flow from the gift of caring.

Steady hands, good eyes

“Just, basically, steady hands because when you’re working with machinery next to expensive shoes you can definitely destroy a pair of shoes really quick. Steady hands, good eyes, be able to see what you’re doing.”

Mr. Scallia tells what the apprenticeship entails. “First off, gluing, watching me, then maybe sanding, on to sewing after that. Gluing, sanding, sewing — in that progression.” And cutting? “Yeah, we’ve got machines and equipment that do that, so, y’know, no finger damage there. But we’d have to trim and stuff on some extra soles that hang over the edge.”

An  entrepreneur would like to create an agreement with the apprentice and his family. Ideally, the apprentice learns the business for a low fixed base pay. He promises to stay one or two years — or a fixed span of time — after that to allow the owner to capitalize on the arrangement while the pay scale is low.

But such contracts are probably not enforceable as indentures were in colonial times. In America’s early days, people indentured themselves to metal or leather tradesmen to pay their passage across the ocean. They learned their trade and served the master up to seven years, until they were freed, with a lot of tools to celebrate their departure.

Teen intern becomes news director

In my business, 92.7 NoogaRadio, my news director Russell Stroud learned the radio and newscasting business, having started as a host at 16. Now at 21, he runs a hot three-hour morning drive show with Val St. John, a veteran radio personality. When Russell moves on for a career in radio, he will have a university-grade education without debt and without having had to suffer through standard-issue college requirements.

Chattanooga business people by the dozens have lamented the difficulty they have in finding hard-working people to serve in their businesses.

I have often pitched the homeschool part of the jobs market, suggesting that homeschool teens are a group apart from schooled people, and may offer unique advantages since they have grown up in educational independence.

Family businesses may be quirky and ingrown, and they may become saddled with nonproductive family members on the payroll. But they have advantages. Mr. Scallia says Buddy’s has been in the family since 1906 when his great grandfather came from Italy. “I’m third generation.” He works in the shop with daughter, Lauren, his mother, Barbara, and Flower, his wife. “This Italian cobbler has a peach of a wife” is printed in a banner under the eaves, a message from old Buddy to wife, Barbara.

“Customers love it and recognize the shop from that sign,’ Mr. Scallia says, “so I’m just keeping it up there.” The sign has “passed on to my wife. She is a peach to me, she helps out a lot here, and I am an Italian cobbler, so it’s fitting.”

Apprenticeships gain ground

In Chattanooga apprenticeships are slowly gaining hold in the corporate economy. Volkswagen has a connection with Chattanooga State, bringing  young people into the workforce before they graduate from college. VW also has a program in the county schools to help the carmaker find future employees.

Every mechatronics graduate is offered a job at the Chattanooga factory with starting pay at $23 an hour. An article in the Chattanooga Times Free Press tells about Daniel Kowalik, 20, in his second year of automotive mechatronics. “It looks like it would be a good opportunity,” he says, potentially leading to a job. “There’s a lot of opportunity here.”

In 2017 Chatt State held and advanced manufacturing academy for graduating high school seniors, paid for by state funds. The group toured Southern Champion Tray and met withreps from 10 companies, several of which had intern opportunities. The local electrical workers union IBEW also has an apprenticeship program.

Other foreign companies have set up shop and are looking for top-notch local prospects.

Homeschoolers may feel insulated from the corporate economy with its large buildings, temp hiring agencies and formidable protocols and requirements for future job prospects (students).

But the principles of dealing personally with a small business owner such as Mr. Scallia hold true for dealing with a big company. Make personal inquiries, work forward with an attitude of caring, and make an effort to meet people in the business you’d like to assist and from which you’d like to learn.


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