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Graduates plan to go directly into workforce

By Portage County Business Council

Originally Published By Sauk Prairie The Eagle

Like most high school seniors, Cody Holby faced a decision as he neared graduation in 2015.

At the time, the Reedsburg Area High School senior was considering attending college, but wasn’t sure it was the best move for him. He’d discovered he was good at metal working, and the Reedsburg campus of Madison College offered related courses. But Holby already had a job at a local machine shop and liked the work. He decided to continue with his job full-time. A few months later, it looked like the decision may have backfired. As the company where he worked sought to downsize, Holby represented one of its most recent hires and was laid off.

Skills in place

Despite the setback, Holby sought to stay in the trades and leverage the skills he developed in Reedsburg Area High School technology education teacher Mike McCarville’s classes.

Holby called his uncle Chip Schneider, owner of TMC Improvements in the Wisconsin Dells area, and asked for a job. TMC performs a variety of construction projects, and Schneider gave him a chance. “It seems no kids want to go into the trades anymore,” Schneider said. “I didn’t go to college and I make a very good living. I’m not a ba-zillionaire, but I make a living. In five years, maybe I won’t want to do this anymore. Cody could take over the business.” Not a bad prospect for a 19-year-old high school graduate.

“Cody got involved in construction, then he was certified in asbestos abatement,” McCarville said. “That’s not something that most people get into, so it makes him valuable because of that. He’ll do just fine in this world without any formal education beyond high school.” Holby said he’s happy and making good money, instead of paying back student loans like many of his peers.  “I decided to work instead of go to school,” Holby said. “I just enjoy doing all the work. It’s never the same thing. I’m very happy where I’m at. I can go out and buy the things I want.”

Declining enrollment

The number of students headed to college in the United States is in decline.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2016 overall postsecondary school enrollments decreased 1.3 percent from 2015. In each of the past four years, college enrollment has declined by about 1 percent. The growing amount of student loan debt in the nation, now at $1.23 trillion, is leading some to reconsider whether college is the best option. Of the 43 million U.S. residents with student loan debt, 12 percent are delinquent on payments. Todd Lassanske, general manager at McFarlane Manufacturing in Sauk City, which builds and sells an array of farming implements, said developing a relationship with the Sauk Prairie School District has become important for the business to develop potential employees.

“It’s been my passion about the idea of getting more involved with the middle school and high school and developing the next generation of staff to let people know there are awesome careers right in Sauk City in manufacturing.” He said work can be more appealing than attending college and running up student loan debt.

“All of a sudden folks come out of college who are over qualified and just invested in $100,000 and want a return,” Lassanske said. “In a year, students can dig themselves a $40,000 hole, when in the meantime they could have been making $30,000 or 40,000.”

Apprenticeships return

As college participation declines, the Wisconsin Youth Apprenticeship Program is growing to prepare some of those students for the workforce.

Shelley Drescher is the work-based learning coordinator for the Cooperative Educational Service Agency District 5, one of several such agencies across the state that oversee the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development program. In five years, participation has more than doubled from 55 students and 54 employers to 126 students and 112 employers. CESA 5 serves 35 school districts in Sauk, Columbia, Marquette, Juneau, Adams, Waushara, Portage and Wood counties. Drescher said more than half of the participants are in agriculture-related fields, followed closely by manufacturing jobs. “Some of our employers hire the students after they complete the program and offer to pay for some of their education,” Drescher said. “We’ve bridged the youth apprenticeship to the adult registered apprenticeship for certification.”

Alternative to college

When Tim Nicholson graduated from Portage High School in 2014, he had a job, but planned to attend Madison College. That was until he found out about the Youth Apprenticeship.

He knew he wanted to be a tool and die maker, and, as part of the Youth Apprenticeship, went to work for Apollo Tool Co. in Westfield. Nicholson’s dad owns a gun shop where he and his older brother helped out in their younger years. “I did gunsmithing, and a lot of that relates to machining and tool and die, Nicholson said. “I was already exposed to that quite a bit. Portage had good shop classes with Rich Hemler. He was one of the ones who pushed me to look at Apollo.” His employer offered to pay for the next step — the adult apprenticeship program, in which he gets paid to work and attend class once every two weeks. Once he has completed the 10,500 hours, or five years of the program, he’ll have a journeyman’s certificate.

“I would definitely recommend it to anybody because you’re getting paid for schooling and work,” Nicholson said. “It’s good money. Every so many hours you complete, you have to get a percentage raise of what a journeyman would be making.” He said the experience is invaluable.

“One of the biggest things with Youth Apprenticeship is you get some hands-on experience with work and school,” Nicholson said. “It’s a different world working in the industry than in a school setting, and you get to see what you need to focus on while you’re still in school.”

Return on investment

Drescher said Nicholson is an example of the growing success of the Youth Apprenticeship Program.

She said the return on investment in the program is $4.31 for every dollar, based upon money received by the state compared to the employer-paid wages students earn. She said college applications ask whether a student participated in any Youth Apprenticeship programs, so it’s helpful to those who might decide to further their education. That will be important for Ben Bonneville, a senior at Sauk Prairie High School, who is in his second year of a 900-hour Youth Apprenticeship at McFarlane Manufacturing. He plans to study engineering at Madison College.

“He’s got as much experience as I would have ever hoped for as a junior in college,” Lassanske said. “We also have three or four key staff that have graduated from high school in the last five or six years and made a career in different venues in our shop. But we need more of them.” Bonneville has immersed himself in advanced physics and math in school. He’s from a family of engineers, and uses computer-aided design programs to create small pieces for use in the high school technology classes.

Getting ahead

McFarlane Manufacturing recently switched over to new computer aided design software, and one of Boneville’s responsibilities is to update existing design files.

He’s also out in the shop with the welders, fabricators, assembly and paint staff. Despite his youthfulness, Bonneville’s comfort with the manufacturing plant is clear as he walks through various departments and into the assembly area. “This is the Swiss Army knife of the whole factory,” he said, spreading his arms. “I like it here. I think I’ll like it more and more as I get more involved with more exciting tasks.”

Other work

The tourism industry in Wisconsin Dells provides many opportunities for young people, whether they plan to start college in the fall or not. Wisconsin Dells School District superintendent Terry Slack said the service industry is an excellent source of jobs for students.“We have a low unemployment rate in the Dells,” Slack said. “As our economy has grown, tourism has recovered very nicely from the recession. Employers are looking for workers. We have excellent local employers.”

Manufacturing is another area where Dells students can get exposure beyond the classroom. “Our freshman and sophomores went on a field trip to expose them to a manufacturing setting,” Slack said. “They went over to Flambeau and some students said they were surprised how clean the work environment was there. They have a fixed mindset that it’s dark and dirty in those places. They were impressed with the high-tech applications. It was good for them to be exposed to that.”

He said more focus has been put on science, technology, engineering and math. Slack said it’s important for students to learn basic reading, writing and arithmetic, but there’s more to education today. “Technology is part of our everyday lives,” he said. “Critical thinking and problem solving is part of that.”

Service jobs

In an area like Wisconsin Dells with a large tourism-based economy, many students consider careers in the service industry. Jane Hemming said many students from her high school culinary classes go on to culinary school or related jobs. “I think a lot of kids when they start the introductory level just want to learn to cook for themselves when they’re on their own,” Hemming said. “I also see some kids love culinary arts and want to go on to a career. People have no idea how smart you have to be and talented to be a chef. They have to know what they’re doing.”

Joseph Clemons is among those students who developed a passion for cooking in Hemming’s class. He works at Culver’s in Portage plans to study at a culinary school after he graduates next year. The school’s really helped me get to where I need to be,” Clemons said. “They guide you through the classes you should be in to get into your field of interest.” Working at Culver’s also has helped. “It’s nice because Culver’s works with you and really wants you to move up in the business,” he said. “I worked my way up to crew trainer and I’m now training other people.”

Lassanske, who is a member of the Sauk-Columbia-Marquette Counties Manufacturing Council, said manufacturing environments like McFarlane Manufacturing have a lot to offer prospective employees and are looking to hire quality workers. “It’s difficult to find good, hirable candidates,” he said. “It doesn’t mean they need a four or even two-year degree. We give them a pathway to grow. We train them on the job and send them to training whenever it makes sense.”

Critical thinking

Bill Milton, owner of Fun Co. in New Lisbon, which manufactures electronic video and arcade games and equipment, said he welcomes student employees and often gives tours of his facility to high school students.

“It’s awesome because they get good experience and they see it’s not all screw drivers and drills,” Milton said. “Students are eager to learn and they do what they’re asked to do. My whole goal is to keep people interested in manufacturing.” Milton said he has three college and four high students among a staff of 52 employees.

Brooklyn Steinmetz is 17 and will be a senior at Royall High School in Elroy. She is working at Fun Co. for her third summer. She said it’s still too early to know what career field she’ll pursue. She said her job has been a learning experience in both critical thinking and in working with other people.

“It’s helped in math and problem solving,” Steinmetz said. “I’m always going through numbers. I have social skills I learned here. I want to do something with a lot of other people around. I have people around me all the time and you have to ask for help at times. I learned that you’re going to make mistakes before you learn to do something. They taught me that and then I just fix the mistake the next time.” Milton said the most basic skills are sometimes the most challenging for employers to instill, like a work ethic.

“The no. 1 skill anybody learns is that you have a start time and it’s about showing up every day on time ready to work,” Milton said. “I can work with anybody who’s willing to work and learn. You don’t have to be super fast or a superstar, you have to be willing to work and learn. Manufacturing isn’t just a factory; it’s sales, purchasing, sourcing and accounting. That’s why I like having the kids here — so they see all that.    Photo Courtesy of Kim Lamoreaux/Sauk Prairie Eagle