Elkhart County Tests A New Apprenticeship Model for High Schoolers

Sep 30, 2019

Youth apprentices with CareerWise Elkhart County participate in a team-building activity while Jason Harrison of Horizon Education Alliance supervises.
Credit Justin Hicks/WVPE

This school year, a dozen high school students in Elkhart County are testing out a new apprenticeship model that went from Colorado to New York City, and now Indiana. Student apprentices will work part-time at local companies and get paid. Organizers hope the program will help connect students with companies that say they can’t find enough skilled workers. 

At Robert Weed Plywood in Bristol, it’s high school junior Chris Camacho’s first day on the job – and his first day of school. He’s getting a tour of the factory floor from his training supervisor, Natalie Hart.

“You gotta come out here and actually do the work,” she says to him on a factory floor crowded with machines the size of semi-trucks. “It’s not gonna be the funnest job you’ve ever had, no. You just gotta make it do what it do.”

Camacho is here for a new three-year apprenticeship organized by Horizon Education Alliance or HEA. He and 11 others will spend the last two years of high school, working part time at a job site. Once they graduate, they’ll work one more year full-time.

The apprenticeship program is designed to help companies across Indiana that say they’re struggling to find workers with the right skills and certifications. Jason Harrison, HEA’s director of pathways, speaking at the launch of the apprenticeship program.

“This is the result of years of figuring out how we can work together: industry, education, and government, to launch a solution to our workforce challenges,” he says. “And youth apprenticeships is one of the key solutions that we’ve identified.”

The apprenticeship program is being modeled after Colorado nonprofit CareerWise. Community engagement manager Gabrielle Helfgott says their goal is to take an age-old idea and use it to solve a modern workforce problem. 

“So that’s part of what CareerWise Colorado set out to do, was to really bring to light that apprenticeships don’t have to be these blue-collar positions,” she says. “They can be more than that.”

She advised HEA to start with just three career types and even told them not to expect every kid to stay with the program. Of the 12 apprentices in Indiana, many say they’re testing this out to see if they really want to start college right after high school. 

But apprentice Chris Camacho says he has no dreams of college. In fact, he says without the apprenticeship he probably would’ve dropped out of high school. When his dad got injured about a year ago, he started working several jobs to help his family pay bills.  

“It’s stressful,” Camacho says. “When you start working and you start paying bills, there’s sometimes nothing left. Sometimes you’re even lucky if you get a little bit left for yourself. For groceries or something like that.”  

Because of the long work hours, he started failing classes. So he was surprised when he was picked for the apprenticeship program along with kids he recognized from the honors program. He actually felt kind of guilty. 

“I felt like I robbed someone’s moment,” he says. “As I looked around I was like, dang there’s these kids who are going to college and I’m just doing this to graduate. So to me it was like, dang, I don’t really belong here.”

But one of his supervisors, Cindy Grider, is excited to have him as an apprentice, especially if the extra pay means he gets to finish high school. And while she recognizes that training teens like Camacho will probably present unique challenges, she says the benefits for students and businesses outweigh them. 

“I think in the end, we’re going to come out with much stronger training programs to introduce all new employees to our environment,” Grider says. “So there’s lots of benefits for us.”

At the launch, organizers announced a goal of eventually placing hundreds of apprentices at local companies. With ambitions that big, Indiana policymakers, like Career Connections and Talent Secretary Blair Milo, are encouraging others around the state to take note.

“Especially as we see the world of work changing, as rapidly as it is, that having these closer connections between businesses and our schools is just going to be that much more critical,” Milo says.

Contact Justin at jhicks@wvpe.org or follow him on Twitter at @Hicks_JustinM.

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