A Manufacturing Business Owner’s Perspective on the Wisconsin Youth Apprenticeship Program

Youth apprentice working with a drill press

Research from The Manufacturing Institute and Deloitte finds that 2.1 million manufacturing jobs could go unfilled by 2030. One of the ways we’re challenging this trend here at Prairie Rivet, a Wisconsin-based rivet manufacturer, is by actively participating in the Wisconsin Youth Apprenticeship (YA) Program and the Inspire program through CESA 6. 

The manufacturing ecosystem can’t exist without these kinds of educational and on-the-job opportunities. Co-owner of Prairie Rivet and avid supporter of the Youth Apprenticeship Program, Jon Hepner, shares his experience including how he became involved, feedback from Prairie Rivet’s current apprentice and what resources have helped along the way.

How did Prairie Rivet get started with the Wisconsin Youth Apprenticeship Program?

Jon Hepner: We reached out to the high school here in Markesan who put us in touch with the director of the YA Program. In addition to the application process and background checks, we had to demonstrate what role an apprentice would be fulfilling in our shop. Once we were certified as a YA business, we were lucky enough to be introduced to our first apprentice, Kendra. We gave her a tour of the shop and learned that her interests aligned with the work that we needed. Through this program, Kendra leaves school early to work in our shop, and earns credits, while also being financially compensated for her time.

What kind of work has Kendra been involved with at the shop?

JH: Kendra started in shipping and receiving packaging products, preparing skids to go out the door and assisting with delivery logistics. We also have her shadowing a technician from the machining and maintenance services company that we currently outsource. She’s learning how to clean and maintain components of our Waterbury Headers, techniques to manage inventory and learning proper documentation processes. It’s exciting to see her getting more involved in the shop with some of the machine work. We’re optimistic that this will help support her if she does decide to pursue a two-year technical degree after she graduates.

What kind of feedback have you received from Kendra?

JH: She likes having a consistent work schedule and consistent responsibilities. Part of the feedback she’s provided is her willingness to take on more and learn new skills—which is something the Youth Apprenticeship Program embraces. She does need to complete specific competencies as part of her curriculum, but she’s been able to do this, and get more hands-on with the separate departments in our shop.

What are some misperceptions about working in the manufacturing industry and how are you addressing these at Prairie Rivet?

JH: One misperception is that it’s a dangerous or dirty work environment. We have a great safety record and regularly do safety training. Whether it’s implementing better safety practices while operating the forklift or putting additional signage around the shop, we’re constantly working to ensure that we have a safe work environment. Our shop is also very clean, well-lit and organized. Another misperception is that people aren’t seen as people, they’re seen as a number or a piece of equipment. We really try to empower employees to share ideas or suggestions for improvement and work as a team. We have regular team meetings where employees share highs, lows, what’s going right and what could be improved. We also offer a lot of professional development opportunities that we cover financially regardless of role or position. I think this demonstrates that we care about our employees as people.

Which resources have you found helpful to support your partnerships with education and training?

JH: The director of the Youth Apprenticeship Program, through CESA 6 College and Career Readiness Center, along with the Markesan High School principal and guidance counselor have all been helpful. We’ve also been getting more involved with Inspire, which serves as a conduit between the business owner and the school so there isn’t a disconnect. I recently became a certified Inspire career coach and will be presenting as part of the Inspire virtual career experience for students in early November.

Talk about your goals with YA. What do you want the future to look like?

JH: Our overall goal is to help more students in the community cycle through the Youth Apprenticeship Program and see what a unique opportunity this is. We provide an atmosphere for students to learn, ask questions and grow. If they decide to go to a technical college after high school, they can do that and continue to work here. And if they don’t decide to go to tech school, they can continue to work with us long-term. The broader goal is to do our part to grow the manufacturing workforce and change the misperceptions about this industry. We’re grateful to have Kendra as a part of our team and look forward to welcoming the next apprentice!

With the number of manufacturing jobs projected to go unfilled, we’re dedicated to doing our part here at Prairie Rivet to empower and inspire tomorrow’s workforce. Postsecondary education is not limited to a four-year degree, and apprentices gain hands-on technical skills, steady income and real-world experience in an industry that’s constantly evolving. Investing in programs like YA benefits today’s students, tomorrow’s workforce and the manufacturing industry as a whole.

A Manufacturing Business Owner’s Perspective on the Wisconsin Youth Apprenticeship Program
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