The three teenagers are regular guys – quiet and polite and devoted to machine tools and hands-on work.

On Thursday, a group of adults had other words to describe Caleb Dyar, Dustin Swygert and Tyler Temples: pioneers, trailblazers and ambassadors. They're among the first high school students in the nation to complete an apprentice program through a unique partnership. This includes an MTU America plant in Graniteville, the Aiken County School District and Aiken Technical College.

For the past two years, the young men divided their time between their home schools, the Aiken County Career and Technology Center and the Graniteville plant of MTU, a German company that builds massive diesel engines. They trained specifically in the Skilled Metal Workers Program.

They were recognized at a formal ceremony at the Center on Thursday. Six rising seniors will begin their second apprentice year this month, and five rising juniors will participate for the first time. At some point during the past year, the nine seniors and juniors were on the clock, paid as workers at MTU, said Brooks Smith, the Center's director.

“We're here to celebrate this journey by our first apprentices,” he said. “With the skills and confidence they've developed, we've been able to establish something we started three years ago,” Smith said.

The ambitious project brought MTU America Vice President of Operations Joerg Klisch together with Smith, Aiken Superintendent Dr. Beth Everitt, ATC President Dr. Susan Winsor and Robert Crenshaw, an executive with Apprenticeship Carolina, a program within the S.C. Technical College System.

In May 2012, they visited the White House for a roundtable discussion about vocational education and apprenticeships for high school students – resulting in the unusual partnership. Klisch said the Career Center students are pioneers.

“In three years,” he said, “we created something that's not just new. It's a way of creating stronger communities.”

Dyar plans to attend ATC to earn a degree in industrial maintenance. The others will go into the workforce, which could be at MTU.

“That's actually what this program is supposed to do,” Klisch said.

The program has opened Dyar's eyes. “I found a lot in common with the (employees). The engineers basically taught us everything we learned on the machines as to what we would be making. I wouldn't be here without them. They have formed my work ethic and who I am.”

The goal is to bring a concept to the U.S. that was established in Germany centuries ago, said Stefanie Jehlitschka, vice president of the Atlanta-based German American Chamber of Commerce. The American Chamber is far different from the German organization. That Chamber, a public-private entity, administers 80 local offices throughout Germany and is located in 86 countries worldwide.

“We're the official body by German law to organize certified exams to register apprentices,” Jehlitschka said. “We have 1.5 million apprentices trained per year in Germany. The (companies) spend $40 billion for training new apprentices ever year. That's why the unemployment rate for young people in Germany is 7.9 percent. That's the lowest percentage in the industrialized world.”

Dyar and Swygert passed a final exam, earning an official graduation certificate. That certificate “offers an international degree,” Klisch said. “They could go to Germany and work at any facility or automotive plant with an assembly line.”

Apprenticeship Carolina provides its services at no cost, helping employers pursue a registered apprentice development process. Smith credited Crenshaw in “connecting the dots that made the collaborative project possible.” Crenshaw said he wants people to know what the students have accomplished.

“Because of this initiative, this dream,” he said, “South Carolina is being looked at as the place to come to learn about the workforce of the future.”

Everitt expressed her pride in the students and how they stepped up with the support of their parents.

“We look forward to the next batch coming through,” she said.

Everitt and Winsor also credited Klisch for his vision of locating the plant in Aiken County. “The impact on the community is nothing short of phenomenal,” Winsor said.

Swygert said he found it hard to believe that so many prominent people attended the ceremony for him and his friends.

“It's amazing,” he said. “I really enjoyed coming to work and working with the other apprentices. I'm not the same person. I've matured a lot, and it's been a real life-changer. It's going to be a great opportunity to get a job straight out of high school.”

Rob Novit is the Aiken Standard's education reporter.