Last January, Alex Rocha walked out of Oshkosh Correctional Institution after serving a two-year sentence and into an uncertain future.
Less than a year later, he can’t believe how far he’s come thanks to a Moraine Park Technical College program designed to combat the skilled worker shortage and provide skills and a brighter future to an often-untapped population of potential workers.
Rocha learned of MPTC’s boot camp program from his mother, who knew someone who had completed it. A new session was set to begin soon after Rocha had been released after completing his sentence for felony drug paraphernalia charges.
The Fond du Lac native says while he recognized the opportunity the program afforded, it wasn’t an easy step to take.
Rocha, 24, had long suffered from depression, and a bout with uncertainty almost stopped him from going on the first day. He arrived late after debating whether to go at all, but still staff members welcomed him into the program.
“I was just anxious and nervous and just didn’t want people to judge me because of my background and mistakes,” Rocha says. “It was all open arms there. They didn’t care as long as you were there and ready to change your life and put in the work.”
And put in the work he did. Boot camp provides an intensive, accelerated learning experience, but Rocha says if participants can commit to it, they can absorb what it would take a year to pick up in another program.
In boot camp, participants attend school eight hours a day, four days a week, and on the fifth day, they work onsite with an employer. Rocha completed the welding program and worked for Mayville Engineering Co.
“It’s actually pretty cool because you have three or four companies fighting over you,” he says.
Rocha chose to continue his schooling and is pursuing a technical diploma in welding and plans to earn an associate’s degree in metallurgy in the future. He’s long dreamed of becoming a blacksmith and says he wants to be part of something big, pointing to the role welders and metallurgists play in crafting buildings and space shuttles.
It’s a remarkable transformation for someone who earned his High School Equivalency Diploma in prison and two years ago had no idea what he wanted to do in the future. Today, Rocha, who’s given speeches and become one of the program’s success stories, realizes how far he’s come.
“Before, I didn’t have any education. I didn’t have any money. I didn’t really have any self-respect because I didn’t care about anything,” he says. “Now that I’ve gone through this, I always keep hearing my mom’s so proud of me, everybody’s so proud of me, and it makes me feel really weird because I’ve never had that.”
An evolving program
The boot camp, now in its sixth year, began with a goal of churning out more skilled workers using funding from the U.S. Department of Labor’s Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College Career Training program along with private foundation money. The funds allowed MPTC to provide the15-week program with tracks for CNC machining and welding — tuition free — to dislocated workers.
When the federal grant money ran out, MPTC received funding from a Wisconsin Fast Forward grant. This requires businesses to participate and match the grant at a dollar-to-dollar ratio. MPTC assists employers in applying and helps manage the funds. Participating businesses provide $12-per-hour internships for each student and a $500 stipend covering additional expenses.
MPTC recently received confirmation that the Fast Forward grant will partially fund the program to support another round of CNC and welding boot camps with new employers.
Jo Ann Hall, dean of economic and workforce development for MPTC, says the program has evolved since its inception. In 2011, when it started, it catered to displaced workers. As unemployment numbers have shifted — Fond du Lac posted a 2.6 percent unemployment rate in September — so too has the program’s demographic, to working with people struggling with poverty or learning difficulties, as well as released prisoners.
In a recent column for Insight on Manufacturing, Lindquist Machine Corp. President and CEO Mark Kaiser, who also serves as chairman of the board for the NEW Manufacturing Alliance, commented on the struggle to fill positions.
“There are opportunities with veterans, with incarcerated people coming out — there are a bunch of opportunities we just haven’t thought of yet,” he said.
MPTC’s boot camp program is designed to nurture just those kinds of opportunities.
Chuck Brendel, associate dean of economic and workforce development at MPTC, works with the school’s prison program, which has partnered with the Wisconsin Department of Corrections since 1973. MPTC works with the incarcerated as well as those released.
“There’s a lot of people in the system who really want to do something with their lives once they get out,” he says. “Studies have shown that people who successfully complete vocational training have a 40 percent lower recidivism rate.”
Hall says through the program, which has run 20 boot camps and churned out 280 graduates, the college tries to instill in participants the idea of education as a pathway to success. The soft skills students learn prove just as important, if not more so, as the hard, she says.
Andrew Luby, economic and workforce development welding instructor for MPTC, agrees.
“I always say that we have a lot of hidden curriculum,” he says. “I can teach them to weld and I can teach them technical aspects of it.
“Sometimes it’s much harder to teach communication and reliability and problem-solving skills.” If his students leave and never want to weld again, he says he’s OK with that. He wants to inspire them to do something more. For many of his students, including Rocha, completing boot camp is their first major success.
The program, which works with men and women, young and old, boasts some impressive statistics, with 88 percent of graduates getting a job, 92 percent getting job offers and a high percentage staying at their internship sites. It’s also earned national attention. Last May, it was featured on the newsmagazine program “Matter of Fact with Soledad O’Brien.”
“At every one of our graduation ceremonies, people say they can’t believe people aren’t lined up out the door for this,” Hall says.
Mayville Engineering Co. has worked with more than 30 people through MPTC’s boot camp program, from both the CNC and welding tracks.
Cliff Sanderson, vice president of human resources for the company, says his company seeks people with a strong work ethic and capability to be trained.
Sanderson says people who go through the demands of the boot camp have already proven they have a certain level of commitment and drive. He realizes not all who work for MEC during boot camp will remain and says getting people trained in skills is the more important goal.
“A rising tide lifts all boats,” Sanderson says. “At the end of the day, it’s kind of for the good of the order. It’s one less individual in a dead-end job.”
Fond du Lac’s Integrity Saw & Tool became one of 35 boot camp employer partners after MPTC approached the company a few years ago. The company’s owner, Paul Reetz, says Integrity got involved after struggling to find people with math skills and work ethic.
“It’s very tough to find people with experience,” he says. “It’s even tougher to find people with work ethic.”
Reetz has nothing but praise for the program, which he says produces graduates of a higher caliber than people he hires off the street or through staffing agencies.
Boot camp alumni want a career, not just a job, he says.
Integrity has hired three graduates from the CNC track, all of whom have bright futures in the company, Reetz says. Their interpersonal skills set them apart, he says. They know the right questions to ask, work well with peers and can accept more responsibility than workers the company typically would hire.
Fond du Lac’s Mid-States Aluminum Corp. has partnered with MPTC since the program’s inception.
The company has hired 10 graduates, and Sue Roettger, vice president of human resources, lauds both the quality of workers it produces and the second chance it gives people.
“This has been one of the most successful programs in terms of developing people that we’ve ever been a part of,” she says. “This program has been life-changing for a lot of people. The graduations, generally, are extremely emotional.”
Andy Behrensprung, an engineering technician at Mid-States, graduated from the boot camp program and has been with the company for four years.
Before the program, life was challenging. Behrensprung’s wife had given birth to the couple’s second son, and the Mount Calvary man lost his job two weeks later.
He had worked in manufacturing since he was 18, holding jobs at Kohler Co. and Oshkosh Corp., and earned an associate’s degree in graphic design, but the post-recession economy proved challenging. He took advantage of a federal grant for dislocated workers that led him to MPTC’s boot camp program.
“My wife and I look at everything like before boot camp and after boot camp,” he says. “It just completely changes your attitude when you have something to look forward to and work toward.” The credits he earned applied toward the process engineering degree he’s pursuing, and he now owns a home and says his attitude and quality of life have improved. It’s a sentiment Rocha shares. The father of a newborn daughter and 4-year-old says he wants to better his life for the sake of his family.
“People always say you should be doing it for yourself, but for me, what matters most is doing it for my family,” he says. “I want to get their redemption and help them through their (difficult) times because they’ve done everything for me. While I’m doing that, I’m doing it for my daughters because I want them to have a better life than I did.”