Giving students a head start on their careers

Ozaukee Youth Apprenticeship graduates another class of young people who have the insight and experience needed for life after high school
By 
CONNOR CARYNSKI
Ozaukee Press staff

Ozaukee Youth Apprenticeship has not only helped Ozaukee County students get a jump-start on their careers for more than three decades, it has also created a new generation of mentors who will guide youths in their professions.

Another class of students who completed apprenticeships, adding to the thousands of young people who have gone through the program, celebrated earlier this month during an Ozaukee Youth Apprenticeship graduation ceremony.

The program allows juniors and seniors at schools throughout Ozaukee to start apprenticeships at their pick of 55 different businesses operating in 11 industries such as health sciences, architecture, manufacturing and STEM — Science, Math and Technology — industries.

Students working in the program earn wages, school credits, apprenticeship hours and skills that make them more marketable after graduating.

While working, students are expected to meet specific skill benchmarks each semester that provide them with the skills they will need in full-time positions.

Upon completion of the apprenticeship, students are awarded a Certificate of Occupational Proficiency from the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development and may be eligible to receive advanced credit at an area technical college, or credit in the University of Wisconsin system.

John Higgins, coordinator of Ozaukee Youth Apprenticeship for 15 years, said aside from a hiring dip in the pandemic, participation in the program has grown significantly since it started in 1992 under the name of Ozaukee Workforce 2010.

From its first class of 11 students three decades ago, the program currently has 108 students with new applications coming in all the time. In total, thousands of students have worked through the program over the years to better their career prospects after high school.

Higgins said he has already received 91 applications for next year.

“At any one time there are about 200 kids (in the program),” he said.

With hundreds of hours on the job under their belts before graduating, Higgins said, students who had apprenticeships through the program are very attractive to employers.

“Any hands on work in the real world for a potential employer after the student graduates high school is invaluable,” he said.

Working students are also often required to earn certifications, which can standout as assets to future employers.

In recent years, Higgins said, he has noticed a trend in students pursuing apprenticeships in STEM industries and healthcare.

“Healthcare has grown probably the most,” he said.

Many of the students who have gone through the program continue working at the local businesses where they were apprentices while going to college, Higgins said — providing the area with talented workers. Others go into registered apprenticeship programs with a jump start on skills and hours needed to complete the apprenticeship.

One important aspect of the Ozaukee Youth Apprenticeship program Higgins said he would like people to understand is that the mentors who students work with during their apprenticeships are key to the program.

He said now so more than ever schools provide resources and information that prepare students for successful careers, but students often need assistance from mentors when they get started.

Higgins said the best results in the program come when a mentor takes the time to meet with students and teach them what they know.

“If you make relationships between really eager young people and someone with 20 years of experience who wants to give back, that’s where the magic happens,” he said.

Oftentimes industries talk about there being a “skills gap” in younger generations, but Higgins said he sees that as being a “mentor gap.”

With working professionals often too busy to work closely with new employees, Higgins said, he envisions a program where retired workers would be hired back as consultants to pass their skills and knowledge on to the next generation of workers.

“That’s one of my dreams in this program,” he said.

Higgins said students remember the impact their mentors make on them and may one day want to return the favor.

A special moment on the job Higgins recounts is when he got a call from a student who was an apprentice at an assisted living facility. One of her patients had just died and she was considering dropping out of the program.

Knowing her skills and potential as a nurse, Higgins encouraged her to keep moving forward.

Two years later, the student reached out to Higgins to tell him she was not only still working at the same facility, she was also working as a mentor to new apprentices coming into the program.

“It’s a mentoring, nurturing program and we need more of that. We need a lot more of that,” 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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