For the past 20 years, GPS Education Partners has been providing an opportunity for students to get a high school diploma while gaining hands-on experience at local companies — as well as creating a way for manufacturers to introduce careers to young people in the region.
“We believe very strongly that education and learning can happen outside of the four walls of a school or a classroom environment, and, in fact, for many students, some of that learning is better delivered in more of a practical, applied setting, such as a work setting,” says Jeremy Joecks, director of partner services for GPS Education Partners.
The work-based learning provider, which is headquartered in Waukesha and operates throughout Northeast Wisconsin, also is celebrating the opening of a new Fox Cities education center at Menasha Corp. in Neenah. A new group of students began attending classes this fall, says Michelle Zimmer-Maertz, human resources business partner at Menasha Corp.
Students in their junior or senior year typically receive classroom instruction in core academic subjects for two or three hours at one of GPS’s regional education centers embedded within a manufacturing company, such as Menasha Corp.
“For the rest of the day, typically four to five hours or so, they engage as youth apprentices at a business partner in the communities,” Joecks says. “So they are training and working and learning and being exposed to all the different possible career paths within manufacturing.”
GPS employs teachers who have a background in alternative education, including many with a tech-ed background. Each education center has an instructor as well as a coordinator who connects businesses with students and serves as a coach, helping prepare students for careers.
Each education center includes between eight and 15 business partners, with seven centers located in Wisconsin. GPS has expanded its model to other Midwestern states as well as Oregon. Some students within GPS programming remain in their traditional school setting while also participating in some type of work-based program.
The program benefits students who prefer a more practical, hands-on learning situation, including those who may not have found success learning in a traditional school environment, Joecks says.
Appleton West High School is one of GPS’s educational partners, sending about 10 to 15 students through the program each year, says Jon Meidam, school counselor for Appleton West High School/Appleton Technical Academy.
“By having our students get skills in the manufacturing area, and develop and use their talents, we’re also helping our community and business and industry,” he says. “All of that works together to have stronger business and manufacturing in our community.”
GPS has operated in the Fox Cities for about eight years. When its education center needed to find a new home, Menasha Corp.’s new corporate headquarters, which was completed in 2018, offered an ideal space.
“When we heard that GPS had a need for a new education center, the light bulb just kind of went on and we were able to move some things around and work with GPS to actually get that optimal classroom setup,” Zimmer-Maertz says.
Menasha Corp. joined the program in 2017 to help combat the skills gap it saw in the workforce.
“I think if you can get the kids into an environment that is more hands-on, they’ll find that manufacturing isn’t maybe what they’ve always been told — that it’s dirty, that it’s dusty, that it’s difficult,” Zimmer-Maertz says. “Instead, it’s a great career path.”
Menasha Corp. has four students working at various locations, with aims to place more, though COVID-19 slowed those plans. With the recent spike in coronavirus cases, the company worked with GPS to have students go virtual for a week or two, Zimmer-Maertz says.
Like other companies within the program, Menasha Corp. matches students based on interest. One student is working in the quality department, supporting COVID-19 response by writing and auditing sanitation protocols. Another is working in the pressroom and die-cutting department.
Zimmer-Maertz says the company has found participating in the program valuable to help close the skills gap in an increasingly technical manufacturing environment.
Most companies participating are manufacturers, starting with Generac Power Systems, but in the past few years “we’ve really started to branch out to what I would classify as sister industries to manufacturing, construction probably being the biggest one,” says Joecks, adding that the HVAC and automotive industries also are on board. “We’re open to any industry that has a need and a skills gap that could be filled.”
GPS is continuing to grow, working with organizations such as Partnership to Advance Youth Apprenticeship, a national initiative aimed at engaging states and communities with connecting young people to the world of work.
The GPS program is funded partially through the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development, which oversees all the youth apprenticeship consortiums in the state. School partners also pay tuition, and participating businesses contribute. Private donations, grants and corporate foundations make up the difference.
Most GPS students land roles in which manufacturers are seeking skilled talent, including machining, maintenance and welding. About 60 percent are hired at a participating company following their experience, with about 50 percent this year because of COVID-19. The remaining students will have gained skills that will be useful anywhere.
“We really like to share and promote that the skill sets they learn are transferable, regardless of what their final landing destination is in terms of career,” Joecks says.
At the end of the program, students receive a high school diploma and some earn technical college credit. To date, GPS has served about 850 students.
“In most of those cases, these were students who were not on a path to success,” Joecks says. “It’s an honor to have been able to provide this outside-the-box type of model that’s been able to impact those young people’s lives.”