Editor’s Note: This article initially appeared in the fall edition of Business Leader, a quarterly magazine published by the Leader-Telegram. View the magazine at LeaderTelegram.com/ magazines.

Dylan Bush held a small electronics board in his hand in early January and pointed out all its tiny, colorful knobs and wires.

With ease, he explained how the object — called an Arduino — can help tinkerers build devices that interact with the physical world. It’s become a favored tool of his throughout his work as a youth apprentice at Machine Tool Camp in Chippewa Falls.

At 16 years old, Bush is getting a firsthand look at how the manufacturing industry operates. Where other high schoolers might be earning cash in retail or fast food, Bush is learning computer coding and how to make 3D models.

He’s paid for his time, and he receives credits at Chippewa Falls High School, where he is a junior.

“I thought it was a great idea,” Bush said as he sat on a chair over checkered floors at Machine Tool Camp, where he works two to four evenings a week. “It’s a job, for one, and they’re teaching me how to use real-world skills for future jobs.”

Bush is one of 407 students in the Chippewa Valley who participate in the Youth Apprenticeship program. Hosted through Cooperative Educational Service Agency 10, the program connects high school students with area businesses to expose them to working life after graduation.

As Wisconsin faces workforce shortages across multiple industries, Youth Apprenticeship organizers hope the program helps students get a jump-start on a career.

“People don’t realize that when baby boomers retire, they’re leaving a gap,” said John Goodman, Chippewa Valley Youth Apprenticeship coordinator. “If every one of our high school kids graduated and went into the workplace, we still can’t completely replace the baby boomers”

Growth on horizon

Started in 1991, the Youth Apprenticeship program hadn’t seen major spikes in participation until the last three years, said Glen Schraufnagel, Youth Apprenticeship consultant for the Chippewa Valley.

Compared to this year’s 407 student apprentices, last year drew 184 students, Schraufnagel said. The year before that, there were just 78.

When he considers the reasons for the increase, Schraufnagel points to word of the benefits spreading, as well as schools placing more emphasis on career planning in the wake of a statewide workforce shortage.

“Everyone can win,” Schraufnagel said of apprenticeships. “The students win by getting out and exploring some careers. The school wins financially.”

Schools get a $350 grant through CESA 10 for each student apprentice they have.

Additionally, students who successfully complete their apprenticeship program could earn their district up to $1,000 each, Goodman said. Successful completion of the program involves 450 apprenticeship hours for a one-year program; 900 hours for a two-year program; and two semesters of related classroom instruction.

“Tie that together with all the different incentives we’ve had from Gov. (Scott) Walker,” Goodman said, “it’s been a no-brainer to participate because they’re getting substantial dollars for these YA kids.”

Industries struggling the most with workforce shortages in the state are manufacturing and health care, Schraufnagel said.

The YA program offers student apprenticeships in 11 industries: agriculture, food and natural resources; architecture and construction; art, audio-visual technology and communications; finance; health science; hospitality, lodging and tourism; information technology; manufacturing; marketing; science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM); and transportation, distribution and logistics.

Of those, the most popular are agriculture, health science, manufacturing and hospitality, Schraufnagel said.

‘Everyone can win’

Business owners find benefits in hosting youth apprentices, too.

Mary Kauphusman, co-owner of Machine Tool Camp, said she got her business involved in 2016 because she thought it could land a couple more employees for the business. She received more than she expected.

“We kind of thought we were doing it to be a good citizen of the community,” Kauphusman said. “It actually turned out to be an amazing source. (The students) are really contributing back. We were pleasantly surprised.”

Machine Tool Camp, which manufactures industrial equipment, has hosted three youth apprentices since joining the program. Two are currently working there, and the third has since graduated high school and is still on board while he is attending his first year of college, Kauphusman said.

While working at Machine Tool Camp, she said, students have a chance to explore the mechanical side to the business, as well as software, coding and 3D modeling.

“When they find their home within the company, then we start to build off that,” she said. “We train them on everything that we have.”

Apprenticeships allow the business to cultivate the labor it would like to see, Kauphusman added. 

“You have access to these kids before they go out into the world,” she said.

For Bush, that ability to explore the industry is making him second-guess his early aspiration to work in video game coding, he said. His exposure to the working world at Machine Tool Camp is making him consider a career in that field, he said.

While on a shift at Machine Tool Camp, Bush receives job assignments from Kauphusman and learns how to use the equipment there. He also helps visitors who pay to use the company’s equipment to work on their own personal or professional projects.

“I would say, ‘Do it,’ “ Bush said of the YA time commitment. “There’s no point not to.”

Bush said many students at Chippewa Falls High School are unaware the YA program exists. But that’s changing, said Laura Bushendorf, career and technical education coordinator for the Chippewa Falls school district.

Like the YA program at large, the Chippewa Falls school district has seen program participation growth in its schools the last few years. That growth is good for more than financial returns, Bushendorf said — it’s about community connections, too.

“It’s one thing for our kids to leave and go across to Minneapolis to work,” she said, “but it’s another to have them work right here.”

Contact: 715-830-5828, lauren.french@ecpc.com, @LaurenKFrench on Twitter