The Intern Initiative

Posted on May 1, 2015 :: Cover Story
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Posted by , Insight on Manufacturing Staff Writer

It’s no secret that manufacturing is facing a shortage of people with the knowledge needed to fill positions that are quickly growing more tech-centric.

Getting young people interested in those careers is one of the best ways to ensure skilled positions are filled and stay filled. That means creating more opportunities for high school and college students to learn and gain experience in manufacturing. It’s already happening here in Northeast Wisconsin, and manufacturers, educators and economic development leaders are looking for opportunities to build on those programs.

A few examples: The NEW Manufacturing Alliance and the Northeast Wisconsin Educational Resource Alliance are working collaboratively to create more internship connections. A program in Sheboygan County, operated by Lakeshore Technical College and funded by the Department of Workforce Development, places high school interns in area businesses. Colleges are finding new ways to connect students with manufacturers.

Those companies that participate in internships or apprenticeships find the investment is worth it.

“Curt Joa has always been interested in educating our workforce because it’s key to us,” says Chris Meyer, HR manager for Curt G. Joa. “We basically hire only skilled tradespeople and professional engineers.”

The Sheboygan Falls company has been involved closely with the Sheboygan Area Youth Apprenticeship program for the past decade and has renewed its focus in recent years. “Everybody knows the skilled trades jobs are hard to fill, and we’re interested in grooming local kids and keeping them local,” Meyer says.

“We’ve kind of taken the stance that because there is a skilled labor gap, that instead of waiting for the perfect candidate to fall in our lap, we’ve decided to create those good employees,” says Erin Kramer, staffing specialist at Joa.

Joa had five youth apprentices this spring and they each have the potential to transition into adult apprenticeships, Meyer says.

“If we can get the kids at the high school level and have them intern with us through their college years, and get them to come back and become full-time employees, we feel like we stand a better chance as an employer to retain them long-term,” Kramer says.

Youth Apprenticeship Manager Jill Preissner says the Sheboygan County program requires students to work 450 or more paid hours with a local employer, and 200 hours can come from summer employment. They receive elective credits at their high school, and they are graded on the job by a trained mentor. Each internship pays at least minimum wage, she says.

“It really does mirror a lot of the adult apprenticeships or registered apprenticeships because of the fact that they’re doing the same thing — they go to school and work at the same time,” Preissner says.

The program sees the student through the process with team-based grading conferences to talk about successes and challenges. “We talk about hard and soft skills so that they get the largest experience possible, because ultimately, we want them to fully understand the careers they’re trying to discover,” she says.

The Sheboygan-area program has grown in the past few years from 11 students from four high schools at four participating companies to 125 students from 16 high schools at more than 60 participating businesses this year, Preissner says.

Company investment in these students is paying off. Last year, 73 percent of the students who were in the program were retained by that business after graduation.

Once business leaders learn more about youth apprenticeships and how child labor laws apply, they feel more comfortable about participating, Priessner says. Some “student learners” are allowed to work in manufacturing areas that youth under age 18 wouldn’t normally be allowed to, for example.

Students learn about the Sheboygan County program through liaisons at local high schools, usually a guidance counselor or a teacher, Priessner says.

Having that familiar teacher or instructor talk directly to students about internship or apprenticeship opportunities is key, says Greg Kleinheinz, an environmental engineering technology professor at UW-Oshkosh.

“It always works better if a student hears from a faculty member they see on a daily or weekly basis,” Kleinheinz says. Faculty also can identify the students who would fit best in certain types of industries or positions. No matter which group or organization is offering the internship, “it’s really about building a connection between those groups and the faculty members, which sort of act as an intermediary, which then open the door to the students.”

The NEW Manufacturing Alliance and NEW ERA are working on a number of initiatives to help connect interns with manufacturers. Their dialogue was one of the catalysts for the creation of the new 2+2 engineering programs that allow students to start an engineering bachelor’s degree through any of the 13 NEW ERA schools and finish at UW-Green Bay and UW-Oshkosh. UW-Green Bay plans to start its program this fall and UW-Oshkosh’s has been underway since fall 2014.

A survey of alliance membership in October 2014 found that many companies wanted more information on internships, even if they had a program in place, says Ann Franz, director of the alliance.

“What we heard loud and clear was although they were doing it, they would really like to learn how to do it better, and those that were not doing it, they knew they needed to get in the game but didn’t know how,” Franz says.

In February, more than 60 people from area companies attended a training event offering advice from UW-Oshkosh and two area employers, N.E.W. Plastics and Oshkosh Corp., on how to offer successful college internships, Franz says. So the interest is there.

But connecting everyone is sometimes a learning process. A planned internship connection event at Lambeau Field in March didn’t draw enough students to proceed, Franz says. Timing was a factor, both in that the event was scheduled at the same time as college job fairs, and that many students have their summer internships in place by December, she said.

About 60 students did sign up, however, and their information was passed along to the participating employers for interviews. The alliance is planning to hold the event again in November, getting ahead of summer internship scheduling and promoting it by getting more employers into classrooms and student clubs.

Getting more young people into manufacturing facilities is one of the ways toward bridging the skills gap.

“That is one of the strengths of college internships,” Franz says. “It’s a wonderful way for students to really see what it’s like in the ‘real world’ in order for them to be more successful when they complete their degree and get that first job. And it’s a great way for employers to get a chance to really see the talent that’s out there.”

The engineering technology programs launched recently by UW-Green Bay and UW-Oshkosh require a student internship or co-op as a degree requirement, says Kleinheinz.

“You can’t graduate unless you do one of these things,” Kleinheinz says. “That’s the good thing. The bad part of it is, the challenge that we face is how do we communicate all of these things to the students?”

Kleinheinz says he hopes manufacturers know there’s strong interest from students. “I think as we grow and build these programs and develop new pathways for students to enter the job market in different areas, there is a time lag that occurs.”

Since the UW-Oshkosh engineering tech program is just getting underway, the students in this program aren’t quite ready for their internships. And the college wants to ensure the right fit for each student.

“If we send somebody who has different expectations or isn’t the right fit, it doesn’t help build further opportunities,” Kleinheinz says.

Technical colleges also have internships and have connected with local manufacturers.
N.E.W. Plastics in Luxemburg brings in students from NWTC’s industrial maintenance and electromechanical programs in a cooperative partnership, says Mindy Bauknecht, human resource leader. The company can support up to six interns at a time, she says.

“The point of our program is to not only help the students to gain the experience, but helping to alleviate some of the stress that we have in the technical areas,” Bauknecht says.

Companies like N.E.W. Plastics find that being proactive helps them fill those internship openings. “I’ve been working with the professors at NWTC,” Bauknecht says. “They have been very good about allowing me to go in and actually speak with their classes.”

But it’s still not always easy to find the right students. “For us, it’s a lot about personality match, and work-ethic match,” Bauknecht says. She sees a lot of candidates that might have all the right experience on paper, but they don’t have the skills to communicate that experience.

She’s enlisted current employees who are taking classes at NWTC through the company’s tuition reimbursement program to help her find students, asking them to keep their eye out for prospects while they’re at school.

The idea with the co-op program, of course, is to be able to hire interns full time, and recently the company issued a written job offer to a graduating intern.

Through the Sheboygan County program, Sheboygan Falls senior Eric Burgard is a mechanical engineer intern at Curt G. Joa — and this is not a look-over-someone’s-shoulder kind of internship.

“I’ve learned a lot about design aspects, how to conceptually bring something to a creative product,” he says. “The whole process between designing what’s in your head, getting it on the software, and going through design reviews, and things like that.”

Burgard first got interested in engineering through a freshman CAD-I class and got involved in robotics as well. His mentor at Joa, Troy Pagel, helps him by encouraging him to find the answers himself.

“Any questions I have, he’ll just stop what he’s doing and come over and help me, and usually we’ll get the problem solved,” Burgard says. “He doesn’t give me the answer right away, he makes you work for it and think through the problem, even if he has the answer.”

Engineering is a field that Joa is always recruiting in. Staffing specialist Kramer says of the 425 employees, 120 are engineers. The machine shop is also an area of heavy recruitment, “and where I spend a lot of my time, because it just keeps on circling back to that skills gap,” she says. “We’re hiring our high school students and we’re going to pay to get them educated. In the meantime, that takes a while. So we’re always looking to try to find people who already have those skills, in addition to building our skilled workforce.”