‘It’s about giving young people an opportunity’

That’s been one of the best parts of his job, says John Higgins, who is retiring after 15 years of leading the Ozaukee Youth Apprenticeship program

STANDING IN FRONT of the some of the students and mentors involved in the Ozaukee Youth Apprenticeship program during a recognition program last week was John Higgins, who has been a coordinator of the program for 15 years and is retiring in August. Students recognized during the May 11 program hail from all corners of Ozaukee County, have completed one and two-year apprenticeships and are graduating high school in the coming month. Photo by Sam Arendt


Ozaukee Press staff

John Higgins didn’t hesitate when asked what the best part of his job as the coordinator of the Ozaukee Youth Apprenticeship program.

“It’s an amazing thing to be part of these young people’s lives,” he said. “To see them grow into adults. It’s about giving young people an opportunity, and they pick it up and run with it and become these amazing adults.

“Sometimes when I meet them, their parents do all the talking, and they grow into these adults who make decisions and take control of their lives. That’s the magic of this, watching these kids become independent.

“I have so many stories of amazing things that have happened.”

He talked about teens who went through the apprenticeship program and years later own businesses of their own.

He recalled one youth who went into an interview with an employer but didn’t get the job. When Higgins talked to the employer, he said the young man “didn’t say anything.” Higgins talked to the teen, who offered a touching story about using his skills to help an elderly neighbor fix his lawn mower and wouldn’t accept any payment.

Higgins talked the employer into giving the teen a second chance and told the young man to tell that story.

“He got the job,” Higgins said.

He talked about a girl who graduated from the program and told him that it gave her a huge advantage when applying to colleges, and about the couple who met when they went through the nursing program — she’s a nurse at Froedtert Hospital and he later joined the Marine Corps — fell in love, married and now have a child.

“I’m a youth apprenticeship grandfather,” he said.

“I have met tons of kids who are going to make this world a better place — and I get to be part of that. Talk about a blessing. It’s hard to walk away from that.”

But he is. After 15 years with the program — and many more in education in general — Higgins is retiring in August.

His retirement was marked during last week’s apprenticeship recognition night, which honors those students completing one or two-year apprenticeship programs and graduating in June and their mentors.

This year’s graduating class included 66 students in fields that include agriculture, food, and natural resources; architecture and construction; art, audio-visual technology and communications; finance; health care; hospitality, lodging and tourism; information technology; marketing; manufacturing; transportation, distribution and logistics; and science, technology, engineering and mathematics, aka STEM.

During the program, it was announced that a scholarship offered by the program will now by called the John Higgins Memorial Scholarship.

“It was really touching,” Higgins said.

Higgins didn’t start his career with the apprenticeship program.

He was a tech-ed teacher in Sheboygan for a few years, then joined the Port Washington-Saukville School District as an at-risk teacher working with elementary to high school students who were at risk of failing.

“It was mostly one-on-one work with the students,” Higgins said. “I could really get to know them and help them.”

He also served as the teacher for juveniles in the Ozaukee County jail.

When Gary Myrah, the district’s director of special services, suggested he consider applying for the apprenticeship coordinator position, Higgins said, his response was simple.

“I said that sounds fascinating and  cool,” he said. “And it’s been amazing watching these kids. I meet them when they’re in seventh, eighth grade or high school and see them grow.

“Watching a young person who didn’t know what they wanted to do graduate and walk into a job with a livable wage is just amazing,” he said.

“It’s watching a student grow into adulthood understanding what responsibility is, what it’s like to hold a job, to work well with others, to see a vision of their future, which can be really bright.”

The apprenticeship program involves students from the Port-Saukville, Grafton, Cedarburg, Mequon-Thiensville, Northern Ozaukee and Random Lake school districts, as well as homeschooled youths.

In addition to recruiting students for the program, Higgins also works to get employers to sign on to the program and find mentors for the youths.

“Basically what I do is talk an employer into hiring an amazing student,” he said. “The student and mentor do all the work.” And once a company has a good experience with an apprentice, they’re sold on the program and come looking for others, Higgins said.

During Higgins’ years with the apprenticeship program, it has grown not just in the number of programs offered but also in the number of students.

When he started, there were nine students in the program, Higgins said, while this year 130 students applied to start in the program this summer.

“I would love to see Ozaukee Youth Apprenticeship double the number of students, and it could easily do that,” he said.

Since the pandemic and with the current labor shortage, Higgins said, employers are increasingly seeking out apprentices.

“Part of our growth is because of what’s happening with the Baby Boomers retiring,” Higgins said. “There’s a big need.”

The program grew so large that about five years after Higgins joined it, they needed to hire a second coordinator — John Duba.

Students in the apprenticeship program not only attend their regular high school classes, they put in 450 hours for the one year program — which includes two summers of work and a school year — and 900 hours for the two-year program — which adds a summer and school year to the tally.

“On average, a student might work 10 to 15 hours a week during the school year. In summer they can be full-time,” Higgins said.

Students who complete the apprenticeship program earn a certificate of occupational proficiency from the state — something that’s worth college credit in many cases — and Higgins noted that an estimated 80% of program participants go on to study at a college or technical college, especially those in the finance, health care and advanced manufacturing areas.

But many stay on with their employer as well, working during summers and school breaks. And when they graduate, there’s often a place for them with the company where they’ve served as an apprentice.

“That’s the goal,” he said.



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Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

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