A new program offered through Northeast Wisconsin Technical College and Fox Valley Technical College is providing an opportunity for high school students and area manufacturers to connect.
The Earn and Learn program pairs high school students who are taking dual-credit courses in advanced manufacturing-related classes with area companies looking to offer a training opportunity to young workers, helping to build the next-gen workforce.
Participating manufacturers will usually pay a portion of the college course tuition for these high school students, helping to minimize education-related debt. The students normally work a part-time schedule while they learn skills like welding and machining from experienced workers. It’s targeted toward high school seniors.
It’s similar to, but not the same as, Youth Apprenticeship programs, which start earlier (junior year) and have a more structured setup that results in a Registered Apprenticeship. Earn and Learn offers on-the-job training as well but can be tailored to fit both the student’s and the employer’s needs.
The program grew out of discussions with both the NEW Manufacturing Alliance and the technical colleges, which hoped to find a way to connect manufacturers with students who were taking courses like welding, blueprint reading and metals.
“This was an audience that no one was having that conversation with — that there’s employers who need you,” says Allyson Baue, Earn and Learn coordinator at NWTC Career Services. “It’s hard to get in front of people who are 17 or 18. But because they’re taking NWTC credits, I can reach out to them … and tell them there are area manufacturers willing to hire them and potentially pay for a portion of their tuition.”
The program focuses on key areas where the region sees a shortage of skilled labor, including welding, CNC machining and electromechanical technology. Most of the students Baue works with are taking those manufacturing courses at their high schools and are already working at least one job — but usually not in manufacturing.
“They’re working at the Kwik Trip and the dollar store and Walmart and Kohl’s department store, but they want to be a machinist or a welder,” Baue says. “So it’s just making that connection.”
Participating companies have the benefit of having an accessible way to train employees on hard skills while also having the chance to see if they’re a good fit in the company culture. The potential for program growth is great, with about 700 students taking dual-credit courses between the two colleges, Baue says.
“Even if you lop that number in half, that’s a pretty viable candidate pool,” she continues.
For now, the program is just getting started, with a handful of companies participating through both colleges. Unfortunately, the COVID-19 crisis pressed the pause button on some student placements as well as the ability for coordinators to visit high schools to expand the program.
NWTC had 15 student placements set before the state declared a public health emergency March 12, with three students now working. One of those students has been working at Lindquist Machine Corp. for several months.
Mark Kaiser, president and CEO of Lindquist Machine, says it was important for his company to participate because of the ongoing shortage of skilled talent in the region.
“We and all other manufacturers have had to look at creative ways to try to create or build our team for the future,” he says.
The Earn and Learn program allows the company to bring in young workers at an early stage to evaluate them for fit in terms of both technical skills and their ability and desire to learn, Kaiser says. “That was attractive to us.”
Josh Rolfing, vice president of manufacturing at Lindquist, has had a Preble High School student working part time. It’s an opportunity to expose the student to fabrication, machining and assembly, the core components of Lindquist’s work.
“It caters to students who have a general desire to go into manufacturing, and maybe they have specific goals in mind … but aren’t sure where they will land or what they’re truly interested in,” Rolfing says.
Lindquist is paying part of the student’s NWTC tuition. Companies have the option to manage their tuition reimbursement in a way that’s congruent with their policies, and the colleges have some scholarship resources available for students when necessary.
The technical colleges also have the opportunity to manage the program in a way that works best for them, and FVTC is considering an expansion into other industry areas, including health care and transportation.
“We looked at this as an opportunity not only to help manufacturing out, but that maybe this could work in other areas as well,” says Chuck Wachter, FVTC Earn and Learn coordinator.
The college’s manufacturing partners have responded to the program in an overwhelmingly positive way, Wachter says.
“They were so excited to hear that we are trying to engage at a college level. We’re trying to engage the high school students earlier in the pathway and help them develop into employees that (manufacturers) would like to see in the future,” he says.
Watch for a special Earn and Learn Signing Day event at Lambeau Field set to feature local manufacturers and students. The event was originally planned for May but is now tentatively rescheduled for August.
On the Web
Earn and learn
The Earn and Learn program is a joint effort between Northeast Wisconsin Technical College and Fox Valley Technical College. Employees interested in taking part in the program must meet the following requirements:
- Offer summer employment for the high school graduate and a part-time position while attending college
- Pay a portion of the student’s tuition for their technical school credential
- Allow the new hire to be a part-time college student and part-time employee
- Provide commitment details to the college’s Earn and Learn coordinator
- Attend the Draft Day celebration at Lambeau Field — date to be determined