Why This 20-Year-Old Apprentice at Bosch Chose to Work First and Get Her Degree Later

January 10, 2020, 12:00 PM UTC
Entry Level-Stephanie Walters-Bosch
Courtesy of Stephanie Walters; Getty Images(2); Courtesy of Bosch
Courtesy of Stephanie Walters; Getty Images(2); Courtesy of Bosch

Fortune’s Entry/Level column is dedicated to people looking for and working in entry-level positions—read the full series here. We interview entry-levelers about their jobs, how they got them, what they want to do next, and more. This interview has been edited for clarity.

Stephanie Brownlee just bought her first home. To many entry-level workers, this is a goal far in their financial futures, but Brownlee, now 20, became a homeowner at the age of 19. She lives in Dorchester County, South Carolina, and decided with her husband that buying the house was a money-saving way to invest in their future. Brownlee helped fund the new home through her work an adult apprentice at engineering and technology company Bosch.

Fortune spoke to Brownlee about working through multiple apprenticeships with Bosch, choosing to forgo the college immediately after high school, and starting her career and financial independence.

Here’s what she has to say about…

How she got here:

When I was growing up, I didn’t have much of a support system. I was in foster care until my grandparents from my father’s side adopted me and my two older sisters.

I’m going to become a first-generation college graduate. I just thought I’m not going to let these circumstances define me. Instead, I’m going to overcome them, figure out what I want to be, and I’m going to apply myself to get to whatever it is.

Coming out of a rural community, robotics helped me learn this is what I’m good at, this is what I want to be. And with robotics, you get to go traveling all over the world. I got to find community outside of my town and see different cultures. I knew I didn’t want to just get stuck in the sticks. 

Making the most of her middle-school and high-school years:

I come from a rural community where there aren’t a lot of opportunities to grow your skills and figure out what you’re interested in. I always liked taking things apart and whenever my father was around, we would work on cars. I learned that I really liked to work with my hands, so I got involved with First Robotics in middle school and learned how to speak about robotics, how to build a robot with Legos, how to code and program it to do things. And that helped me when I was in high school when you start to build with metals instead of Legos and you learn how to use different tools.

The youth apprenticeship at Bosch:

I found the youth apprenticeship at Bosch through the robotics scene in high school. Students in three counties are allowed to work at Bosch for the youth apprenticeship and take college credits while they’re in high school. They don’t have to pay a thing. It’s free education, free on-the-job training. It helps the student, it helps the community, and it helps the employer who then has a better way to hire younger people. And they get new ideas and new input from the next generation. 

What the adult apprenticeship entails:

I’m in training two for years including school and work. The apprentices are learning to be a mechanic or electrician so they can fix things, but they also learn how to be machinists so they can make things if something like a custom part is ever needed. We go to Trident Technical College, a school in the low country of South Carolina that Bosch partners with. In school we’re learning theory and at Bosch we’re actually applying that knowledge in hands-on training and on-the-job training. And through all of that, we will all end up having experience showing that we can be in industrial mechanics and electricians.

Why she chose to apprentice over going to college:

Instead of just going on to be a mechanic, I knew I wanted to do more. So with the adult apprenticeship, it was a natural transition. I had relationships with people all over the Bosch community through the rotations we do, and I wanted to grow with them. I could have gone to university to get that college experience but that’s not my goal in life. I didn’t want to be defined by going to a certain college. I wanted to define myself. And to define myself, I wanted to follow what I want, not what everyone else expects out of me.

Bosch is a place where they’re flexible. It’s not like everyone has to have a four-year degree or everyone has to be this certain type. They’re okay with me wanting to learn and work on the job. So going to the adult apprenticeship was a natural way to continue to grow in my career.

Being a young woman in the male-dominated mechanics and engineering world:

I always have it in the back of my mind. Because I started young and because I was female, I was slightly afraid people wouldn’t take me seriously. But I wasn’t giving them a chance to see how they would treat me first. It made me feel like I didn’t have a voice, but over time, I got to know the people and Bosch and became more confident until I was comfortable sharing my knowledge and experience.

A day in the life:

I wake up around 4 a.m., then I drive to work and clock in between 5:45 a.m. and 6 a.m., and then we have 8 hours that are different each day. One day you may learn how to use a certain machine and another day you may learn how to use certain sensors or a piece of electrical equipment. And then other times in your apprenticeship you’ll go on rotations, that way you can apply what you learn and make connections and network.

So in my days right now, we go in and we do some computer-based training and refresh us on some of the things that we learned within the last year. Then we go to Trident Technical College some days. Our weeks are broken up. You go to school or you go to work and you leave and that’s it.

Right now, it’s 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. I go to bed usually around 8 p.m.

How the apprenticeship is structured:
The first two years of this program, it’s just learning and training. Then, you have a guaranteed job for two years after that at Bosch. That’s in the contract that you work for two years after your two years of free education.   

Pay and tuition reimbursement:
We get paid hourly and [Bosch] pays for your education and whenever you’re done with the apprenticeship program, there is additional tuition reimbursement while you work at the company. When I’m done training and I’m just working full-time at Bosch, I’m going to do more college and there will be tuition reimbursement for that. They reimburse the whole price of the class as long as you pass it.

Benefits as an apprentice:
There’s a 401(k), health insurance, medical insurance, and other benefits. We get free fitness shoes every year and free extra work equipment if we need it. Also, just because you’re an employee at Bosch, you get other benefits like discounts for different amusement parks and places that are popular for the low country.

Buying her first house at 19:
I recently bought a house. It’s about 45 minutes away from Bosch and I live with my husband. Usually rent in this area is about $1,000 or $1200, so it’s cheaper for me, coming out of high school and moving out of my parents’ house, to go and get a mortgage paying $700 a month rather than having to rent for more than that and then having no return on investment.

The hardest part of the apprenticeship:
Grasping the idea of having such a heavy attention to detail. As a mechanic you fix something and you make sure it’s clean and you put it in the machine. But when I make something as a machinist, I want it to be perfect so when I show it to someone, they’ll want to buy it. So you have to make sure that it’s perfect, to expectations, and also perfect in aesthetics and neatness. 

Her favorite part of the apprenticeship:
My favorite part has always been the people. If I’m at work or at home or at school, I just love meeting people, and I love learning what what they love and what they’re passionate about.  Pretty much everyone at Bosch knows something that I don’t know. So I’m like, okay, what can you teach me? What can I learn from your life experience?

What’s next:
My goal is to focus on becoming an engineer so I can move up the ladder. After the apprenticeship program, I’ll be done with my certificate and I’ll be able to start working on my four-year degree. I’ll apply what I learned and show that I took the apprenticeship program seriously and that I’m not going to stop there.

In the long term: 
I want to get my electrical engineering degree and become a manager. With that, I’ll learn how to deal with people and be better at communications and that will help me with a foundation for when I start a business.

The main reason I want to make my own business is so I can fund a not-for-profit. I want to give back to the community that gave to me. And I want to help it by having an orphanage or having a group home for older foster kids. I want to help them do what I did, give them somewhere to go when they graduate high school, whether that’s a job or college.

Advice to her younger self:

It doesn’t matter where you start off, one day, you can be as high up as you dream to be as long as you put yourself out there, as long as you work towards that.

More Entry/Level from Fortune:

—How this daughter of immigrant farmers found her comms job at Tyson
—She went from Goldman Sachs to Blue Apron recipe tester. Here’s why
—How this former Army sergeant found an entry-level job at IBM
—A look inside GM’s two-year, entry-level rotational program
—How an entry-level UX designer at Amazon got her foot in the door
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