Students and parents are looking at a 30-year-old youth apprenticeship program with a new lens after COVID-19 changed the employment landscape.
Since Linda Gard has been coordinating the program at Verona High School the last three years, the number of students participating has been under 10. But now close to 20 students are filling out applications to be in the program next year, and Gard is hoping to find them all jobs.
Gard, school-to-career coordinator at Verona High School, said students and parents are taking another look at jobs in areas such as health sciences, manufacturing and trades after seeing how they weathered a surge in unemployment during the pandemic.
“These jobs are good jobs and these jobs are consistent and it’s been proven because all of these essential jobs have remained during the pandemic,” Gard said.
The rise in numbers at Verona High School also can be attributed to a greater reliance on delivering information electronically during the pandemic, which allowed Gard to better inform students about the program, she said.
“Students tell me they wish they had known about the program sooner and other students don’t know about it,” Gard said. “At the end of the day we are just trying to help students figure out that path they want to take after high school.”
The Youth Apprenticeship Program (YAP) was stared by the state Department of Workforce Development in 1991, and the Dane County School Consortium has been coordinating it for county school districts since 1993. It is open to high school juniors and seniors through one- and two-year programs that combine academic and technical classroom instruction with mentored on-the-job learning. Apprenticeship participants also work 12 to 15 hours per week during the school year and are encouraged to work during the summer depending on the needs of the employer, which pays the wages.
Students get high school credit and may be eligible for advanced standing at a technical college offering a similar program.
Students are not just placed in the trades. Several Dane County students are working on COVID-19 research in labs at UW-Madison.
Cole Montgomery, a Verona High School senior, said while the decision to become an apprentice was made before the pandemic, it led him to want to work more hours for something to do.
Montgomery, who hopes to study engineering in college, realized his chance to work as an apprentice at Big Sky Engineering in Verona was an opportunity to show colleges “another layer of dedication” to his chosen field.
“It would be cool just to have a job like this being this young,” Montgomery said he thought at the time.
Ironically, he also worked on a machine at Big Sky that will produce COVID-19 saliva test kits.
Carson Heller, a Belleville High School junior who also is an apprentice at Big Sky, said he started working there at the end of his sophomore year. When his school went online because of the pandemic, he had more flexibility and he had more time for the job because an extracurricular activity, Science Olympiad, also shut down. Later his job turned into an apprenticeship.
Teresa Gartley, school-to-career coordinator at Belleville High School, said that even before the pandemic, students and parents were seeing that the work world has changed and that a four-year degree is not a guarantee for success anymore. Skills and experience give students a jump-start, and employers are looking for students who have those, she said.
Paulina Rodriguez, a Verona High School senior, has been working as a finance-banking apprentice at the UW Credit Union for the past two years. She said she has worked with her parents in more labor intensive jobs, such as cleaning and landscaping, and wanted to “branch out to something I wanted to do in the future.” She plans to attend Marquette University and study finance.
Josh Fassl, director of the Dane County School Consortium, said while across the state the program has seen a 20% to 25% reduction in student participation, Dane County has been able to maintain numbers overall during the pandemic.
He said Dane County has access to reliable high-speed internet, which allowed some students to be able to continue working in their jobs online.
In addition, student interest was up, particularly in construction and health care, because they no longer were enrolled in extracurricular activities.
But the consortium also lost students interested in engineering, auto tech and hospitality because of the hits those areas of the economy took during the pandemic, he said.
But while the apprentices in Dane County have grown from about 100 students to almost 300 students in the past five years, Fassl said that given Dane County graduates more than 5,000 students each year, there is much more work to do to get students connected to a job.
“Industrial automation is one of the fastest advancing technologies in the world. This fact is not very well known or exposed to high school students. Getting involved in YAP is a path to expose these young students to the many career options available,” said Joel Cunningham, president and operations manager at Big Sky. “Giving these kids the opportunity (for) a real job experience so young in their professional career is the goal we seek.”
“These jobs are good jobs and these jobs are consistent and it’s been proven because all of these essential jobs have remained during the pandemic.”
Linda Gard, Verona high School YAP coordinator
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