Nicole Rodriguez graduated in May with a theater design degree. But with few job prospects, she enrolled in Dunwoody College of Technology’s engineering and design program to seek a career in manufacturing.

A few days ago, she and 18 other Dunwoody manufacturing students toured and applied for scholarships and internships at E.J. Ajax & Sons Inc., a metal-stamping factory in Fridley committed to developing the next generation of high-tech production workers.

The family-owned firm makes 70 percent of North America’s appliance hinges. It has 53 employees, 13 apprentices and four interns but is looking for more.

A week ago, Ajax administered the national metalworker assessment skills test at its factory and pledged to give two Dunwoody candidates $15-an-hour internships, $10,000 scholarships and the chance to apprentice into journeyman status — a four-year program that pays up to $29 an hour and full tuition toward a four-year degree.

“I want this. I want something more stable and that has a better career track,” said Rodriguez, who has been cleaning houses on the side to make ends meet. She learned in Dunwoody’s lab that designing manufacturing equipment “requires creativity” just like theater design. “I like it. I have the cuts all over my hands to prove it, ” she said.

This week, company co-owner Erick Ajax will narrow his list of finalists from 19 students to five. Dunwoody’s scholarship committee will select the final two.

“We don’t just talk about training. We believe in it,” said Ajax. “We are trying to do our part to address that job-skills gap.”

A recent study by the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development found that the shortage of skilled workers is a chief concern among factory managers. But the study also found companies don’t offer competitive wages or train new workers to program today’s computerized high-tech factory machinery. It’s a worry, because the sector represents 15 percent of state GDP.

E.J. Daigle, Dunwoody’s dean of robotics and manufacturing, said E.J. Ajax bucks bad practices. Most plants fail to partner with technology schools to train and get skilled workers. “I get calls all the time from companies saying, ‘I need your best graduates.’ We just had 400 requests to hire machinists,’ ” Daigle said. “But when you call me in January, you’re too late. They were all hired about a year ago. Erick is always one of the first [to hire].”

E.J. Ajax long has worked with various community colleges to mentor students, offer internships and provide the technical training needed for today’s sophisticated manufacturing world, Daigle said.

At the company’s recent Scholarship and Intern day, Erick Ajax invited first-year Dunwoody manufacturing students who were studying automated systems, robotics, engineering, drafting and machine tool technology. The scholarships don’t go into effect until their second year. But Erick Ajax is involved now, Daigle said.

Last Monday, Ajax was at Dunwoody talking to Rodriguez and the 18 other candidates and reviewing their assessment tests from Friday. He’ll be back today to check class grades, attendance records and select finalists for his program. Why the fuss?

“We have learned that being able to select two of Dunwoody’s top manufacturing students is just like going to the Final Four and being able to draft the two best college players from the national championship,” Ajax said.

Once selected, interns become part of “the family,” Ajax said. After graduating, they go full time and become Ajax “journey-worker” apprentices. That means they’ll have mentors, get job training, a job paying $20 to $29 an hour, and other help achieving the industry pinnacle — a Class A journey-worker certificate that takes years to accomplish.

Talon Ganz, an Ajax apprentice, knows the program opens doors. A year ago, Ganz was a scholarship candidate, just like Rodriguez. “I was impressed by the work they did,” said Ganz, who won the internship and $10,000 scholarship. Today, Ganz makes $18 an hour programming Ajax’s stamping and laser machines.“I will enter the apprenticeship program and become a full-time [worker] in May when I graduate [from Dunwoody],” he said.

Ganz will get another bump in pay and then specialize in metal fabrication, tool-and-die work or punch press operation.

Joe Brudzinski is following in Ganz’s footsteps. The Dunwoody student missed getting the 2012 scholarship by a hair. Still, he stayed in touch with Ajax. When he was laid off from a $14-an-hour factory job in early February, he e-mailed Ajax and was hired as an intern at $16 an hour. When Brudzinski graduates in May, Erick Ajax said, “He will also go right into our apprenticeship program.”