Careers in the making

High school students who are caring for patients, machining surgical tools are among the 107 teenagers getting a jump on their futures through Ozaukee Youth Apprenticeship program

CERTIFIED NURSING ASSISTANT Eva Perez checked the blood pressure of a resident at Harbor Campus in Port Washington last week. The Port High senior is picking up a valuable introduction to a career in health care through the state’s Youth Apprenticeship program. Photo by Sam Arendt
Ozaukee Press staff

Certified nursing assistant Eva Perez treats memory care residents like they were her grandmother as she helps them with daily activities at Harbor Campus in Port Washington.

CNA Abbey Callahan helps care for patients who have pneumonia, hypoxia and a multitude of other conditions in a progressive care unit at Aurora Medical Center in Grafton.

Computer-numerical control machinist Jon Deppiesse makes surgical tools at Gauthier Biomedical in Grafton.

The three have yet to graduate from high school. All are thrilled to get an early foot in the door in their career fields.

They are part of a growing group in the state’s Youth Apprenticeship program, which connects and prepares high school juniors and seniors for the workforce.

Perez has worked at Harbor Campus for nearly two years and loves cultivating relationships with the residents.

“I had only worked at McDonald’s. Now I’m working with real people. I’m their eyes and their ears,” she said.

The Port Washington High School senior plans to become a registered nurse and perhaps a nurse practitioner. Her CNA job through the Youth Apprenticeship program earned her early acceptance into the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s College of Nursing without having to apply.

Callahan plans to attend Moraine Park Technical College in West Bend in fall and will be two years from earning an associate’s degree in nursing. She hopes to get a job where an employer will pay for her registered nursing classes.

The Cedar Grove-Belgium senior already loves her CNA job, especially treating patients with chest tubes.

“As a CNA, I am responsible for ensuring that these patients walk every four hours, which is really cool,” she said.

Youth Apprenticeship, she said, afforded her that opportunity.

“Normally, you don’t even set foot in a hospital when you’re 17,” she said.

More young adults are doing so than ever before. Wisconsin has about 7,700 Youth Apprenticeship students — an all-time high, said Joel Evenson, a career technical education specialist at CESA 7. His Youth Apprenticeship consortium covers about 20 high schools, and Cedar Grove-Belgium is one of the stars.

The school has 25 students in the program, reaching the goal of 17% of the student population, he said. Statewide averages are 3% to 6%.

Evenson recruits students by walking around the lunchroom and meeting them, which is how Callahan became interested.

“I know the kids,” Evenson said.

Cedar Grove-Belgium High School Principal Josh Ketterhagen supports the program.

“I’m really impressed with the students who are going into Youth Apprenticeship and what they’re doing,” he said.

Perez learned about the program through Ozaukee Youth Apprenticeship Consortium Coordinator John Higgins, who has 107 students participating from the county’s six high schools.

Perez’s first impression was that the program is for tech-related careers. Then she visited its website and saw people in lab coats.

“What is this?” she said. “Seeing that was a game changer.”

The impression that Youth Apprenticeship only teaches the trades is “something we’re still fighting,” Evenson said.

The program offers 11 different career fields, from architecture to the arts, marketing to manufacturing and finance to health sciences. Cedar Grove-Belgium students are working in nine of them.

It takes commitment. Perez spent most of her summer in 2021 taking CNA classes at the Mequon campus of Milwaukee Area  Technical College and doing clinical work in Greenfield before she started at Harbor Campus, and she had to adjust her work schedule around swimming.

Callahan went to Moraine Park Technical College in Fond du Lac for CNA classes while she played soccer.

Most schools pay for the CNA classes, although students have to buy their own scrubs and gait belt.

Schools receive money for students who complete the program, Higgins said, which helps pay for corresponding coursework.

Students are required to take a course related to their field of study and work a minimum of 450 hours between two summers and the school year. Some students have racked up 2,500 hours, Higgins said.

By then, students have developed a clear picture of what it’s like to work in that field.

“It’s a great way for kids to explore careers, figure out what they want to do and what they don’t want to do,” Evenson said.

Higgins said he had one student who was a CNA but went to school for finance. She was still able to get a good-paying job at a nursing home near her college while she attended school.

For UW-Platteville-bound Deppiesse, who turns raw steel and aluminum into surgical tools, “it really helps me understand what it is to be an engineer because I actually work and cooperate with biomedical engineers,” he said. “It really helps me prepare for what I’m going to be doing in the workplace.”

Many employers hire their youth apprentices — “that’s the goal of the program,” Higgins said.

Perez looks forward to that.

“It feels comforting that I have a job to come back to during winter break,” she said.

Employers have to agree to mentor the Youth Apprenticeship students. Higgins said developing those relationships is vital.

He denies the common claim that there’s a skills gap in matching careers with young people.

“A skill is something you can write down in a book,” he said. “You know what there is? There’s a mentor gap. You’ve got to have a mentor to teach the skills.”

Companies, however, also reap benefits from the roles their young workers can play.

Harbor Campus Executive Director Carla Kostecki said it’s difficult to fill short shifts on nights and weekends since almost everyone wants to work 40 hours.

“We rely on the Youth Apprenticeship program to fill in those gaps,” she said.

Perez said she is treated like an equal to co-workers with decades of more experience, and she is mentored.

“This turned into something way more than I expected it to in a good way,” she said. “It’s my pre-adult life.”

Her mother Beckie loves how it has affected her daughter.

“Seeing her come into her own through the Ozaukee Youth Apprenticeship Program and finding her passion and purpose in health care has been remarkable to witness,” she said.

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Ozaukee Press

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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