Building a better workforce

Sargento seeks to recruit, train Hilbert students

Posted on Dec 30, 2019 :: Pipeline
Sharon Verbeten
Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer

As the workforce changes and positions become harder to fill, companies are increasingly looking to future generations to fill the gap. For some — including Plymouth-based Sargento Foods — that means teaching high schoolers the high-tech skills they’ll need down the road.

To begin training high school students for a possible career with the cheesemaker, Sargento launched a new initiative to build and develop its future workforce, says Anne Troka, workforce development liaison for the $1.4 billion company.

“The whole state is experiencing a talent shortage,” Troka says. “The goal is awareness and excitement. It’s hard to know what careers are available if you’re not aware of them.”

Sargento is teaming up with Hilbert High School to help students learn manufacturing skills and earn technical college credit while still in high school. The program will help students understand the available career pathways and then provide curriculum in parallel with what is happening in companies, Troka says.

Right now, that focus is on high-tech manufacturing jobs.

Sargento first partnered with LAB Midwest, a Mequon company that works with schools and businesses on several initiatives, to begin developing classes that high schools could use. The company then approached several Calumet County school districts about the partnership, with Hilbert being the first to sign on. The classes developed by LAB Midwest will be added to Hilbert High School’s curriculum as four one‐semester courses.

The courses include introductions to Mechatronics, Industrial Control Systems, Industrial Robotics and the Industrial Internet of Things. School District of Hilbert Superintendent Tony Sweere says he hopes the school will offer the courses next fall.

Students will take these classes for high school credit, but they will also earn technical college credit through Fox Valley Technical College. “That’s the hope, that’s the goal,” Sweere says.

Students will reap the benefits of using specialized, high‐tech equipment located at Sargento’s Hilbert production facility, which employs about 500 and continues to grow.

Sargento plans to build a 15,000-square-foot addition at its plant and remodel another 5,620 square feet as well as expanding onsite surface parking. With an expected completion next summer, the expansion will be a two-story facility and include offices for plant management, a wellness center and a new company store. 

Sweere says Brillion and Stockbridge schools also hope to work with Sargento on the new program. “Our goal is to work as three districts” to share costs and teach the courses, he says.

Experiential learning is especially good for students who may not necessarily envision college as a goal, Sweere says.

“You’re giving kids a different viewpoint, a different look at what’s going on in industry,” he says, adding it is a “better version of traditional high school industrial arts classes.”

While Hilbert has seen its students accept apprenticeships at local companies such as Faith Technologies, Sweere says this is a more formalized approach to preparing students for the workplace.

“Sargento picked us (because) obviously they’re looking for workers, skilled workers,” he says.

In addition to the schools in Calumet County, Sargento is working with schools in Sheboygan County — including Random Lake, Elkhart Lake and Oostburg — which have already committed to adding the fundamentals courses to their industrial arts curriculum.