Apprenticeships Give MPS Students Real-World Work Experience

Apr 19, 2017

What does it take to get students college and career ready? Milwaukee Public Schools is finding that preparing kids for their next steps involves more than just classroom instruction – in some cases, students need hands-on experience in the work world.

That’s something MPS is working to provide for students as they grow an in-house Youth Apprentice program.

Bradley Tech High School senior Desmond Glenn is part of the program right now. He joined after transferring to Tech from another school, and finding his place in a new welding class.

“When I saw I was good at it, and I saw I was getting better and I could actually fit in, it made me really feel comfortable,” he reflects.

Desmond excelled so much so that he decided to look for opportunities to weld outside of school. He followed his teacher’s advice and applied for the MPS Youth Apprentice Program. Its goal is to pair students with local employers, who let the teens work four afternoons per week – essentially as “junior members” of the staff. So far, only two employers have signed on - the city and the district itself.

The school district welcomed Desmond to its facilities and maintenance team. After he finishes class in the morning, he drives about a mile north to the big MPS facilities shop. He spends the afternoon as a maintenance worker, fixing odds and ends for district buildings -- including the middle school he attended as a kid.

“I feel like I can do this,” Desmond says, as he prepares his work bench for the day. “This could be a career for me, later on in the future.”

That’s the kind of exploration MPS wants kids to get out of this program.

“Whenever we ask a 16-year-old ‘What do you want to do in the future?’ We create often an overwhelming expectation that they should know!” says Scott Sommer, Bradley Tech’s industry liaison.

Right now, MPS has created positions needed for the seven Tech students interested in the apprentice program so far. As Sommer points out, Bradley Tech is a logical place to start -- the school specializes in teaching the trades, the careers students there hope to eventually pursue.

"Bradley Tech has a historic legacy of being a place where business partners come to looking for skilled workers to build a pipeline for Milwaukee’s workforce,” he says.

"If you have a work ethic in school that you show up on time, you have a positive attitude, you can accept constructive criticism, then you would probably be successful with the youth apprenticeship,” says Terri Salzer, who oversees work-based learning initiatives for MPS.

Salzer says the soft skills kids learn in school – such as time management and teamwork – apply to all career paths. So now the goal in MPS is to solidify partnerships with more employers, where students can use those skills and learn others -- not just in the trades, but in a range of fields.

Another challenge? Making more kids aware that an apprenticeship program exists and that it can help them move forward.

"It’s really important that students understand that, that’s part of what youth apprenticeship is,” she explains. “You get to explore, you get to understand. It may turn out that you don’t care for it – but at least you know more now than you did before, and say yes to those opportunities to learn more.”

For senior Desmond Glenn, his apprenticeship has led him to an opportunity post-graduation. When school ends in June, he’ll continue his work with the MPS facilities team, which he hopes could eventually turn into a full-fledged job.

Desmond says he’s grateful for the chance to try something as a student first and make the connections between this job, and what he’s learned in school.

"When teachers say, ‘You’re need to be really good at math,’ or ‘Math is important' -- kids say, ‘zehen am I ever use that in life?’” he chuckles. “Once I got this job, it [made me] look at it totally differently.”

The state of Wisconsin has been encouraging districts to grow these kinds of opportunities, so MPS plans to continue pushing its apprentice program into high gear.