DuraTech Industries recently celebrated the graduation of its first Youth Apprenticeship student through a partnership with Holmen High School, of Holmen, Wisconsin. Holmen High School, a high school within the community of DuraTech’s La Crosse Wisconsin Headquarters, is a participating Youth Apprenticeship School through the State of Wisconsin Youth Apprentice Program.  This career exploration program, otherwise known as “YA,” is part of a statewide School-to-Work initiative.  It is designed for high school students who want hands on learning in an occupational setting along with classroom instruction.

Chris Wehrle, Vice President of Human Resources at DuraTech, was contacted last year by Tim Bakeberg, a Youth Apprenticeship Coordinator and ACP Counselor at Holmen High School.  Tim had a student who was interested in an Information Technology Apprenticeship and asked if DuraTech could provide the opportunity. Wehrle expressed, as a growing company, she was open to the idea of having a student apprentice in the I.T. Department, but had to first determine if DuraTech met the State’s YA Program requirements.

Each employer who wants to participate in the YA program must have the ability to hire the student as a team member and provide a mentor to train and educate the student for the required amount of program hours. Depending upon which program level the student chooses, those hours can be anywhere from 450 to 900.  Wehrle said DuraTech met those requirements and welcomed Dakota Horstman as their first YA student for the 2018 and 2019 academic year. Horstman graduated from the YA program in the spring of 2019 and at the highest level, which is a Level II.  He was required to work 900 hours, or the equivalent of two academic years, but Horstman said he finished the program with 1300 hours in just one year, all while working multiple jobs and being dually enrolled in both high school and college courses.

Figure 1: Left, Chris Wehrle, VP Human Resources, DuraTech Industries, with at right, Dakota Horstman, YA Student

Horstman started out his YA at DuraTech learning how to manage the I.T. Help Desk.  With Jack Swinghamer, DuraTech’s I.T. Team Leader as his mentor, Horstman was able to better understand real- world work situations that occur within a Help Desk environment, as well as other facets of an I.T. Department. He later shadowed the Information Systems Department and learned about back end software programs such as SQL and Seradex.  Horstman remarked that he could not have asked for a better mentor.  He shared that Jack was the best teacher he has ever had.  Wehrle agrees that this program offers real- world work experiences.  She confirmed, “It’s a great way to get students involved early on and to understand the skills that are needed for a particular job, such as learning how to communicate and interact with other people in an organization and being responsible and accountable for their actions.” Wehrle added, “They get the chance to apply what they learn in the classroom setting and really understand if this is the right career path for them.”
Not only did Horstman receive high school credit for his participation in the YA program, but he also received postsecondary credits, allowing him to skip three classes in his postsecondary program at Western Technical College of La Crosse, Wisconsin, saving him over $1500 in tuition fees.  Horstman said he enjoys learning and has a knack for picking things up quickly, especially I.T. and robotics. He put in as many hours as he had time for at DuraTech. Wehrle commented, “Dakota has fit in really well at DuraTech.” She continued, “We were very lucky to have someone with his knowledge and professionalism as our first YA student.”

Because Horstman is attending college locally, DuraTech was excited to extend his employment permanently and provided him an opportunity he is simply thrilled about. Horstman exclaimed, “DuraTech has given me a career.”  “I was fortunate to explore many “careers” during my YA time here in I.T., but with DuraTech being on the cutting edge of automation, I now have the ability to pioneer a manufacturing automation system here.”  The goal for the automation system is to identify product defects much sooner in the manufacturing process.

When asked what this experience has provided him, Horstman revealed, “This experience gives me a leg up in my career that no classroom could have given me.” “I am already 10 steps ahead of anyone else that has not had this experience.”  He continued, “I would recommend this program to anyone that has the opportunity.” “Just go talk to your school counselor, but if your school does not offer YA, don’t be afraid to call some employers yourself and see if they would be willing to be a part of this type of program.”

According to the State of Wisconsin Youth Apprenticeship website, employers have used the Wisconsin Youth Apprenticeship Program to connect with high school students for over 25 years. Over 3,100 employers and 4,300 youth apprentices across Wisconsin participated in the YA Program during the 2017/18 school year.  Employers extend permanent job offers to more than 75 percent of the graduating youth apprentices annually, making YA an excellent pipeline for recruiting and retaining loyal, well-trained talent.

Holmen High School held a career letter of intent signing day  in May, 2019 for each of its graduating YA students, and recognized them and the employers for their commitment.  Wehrle is excited to work with the YA program again.  She hopes to find a student that would be interested in the Manufacturing Program Area, but is open to other students pursuing different interests. Wehrle noted that DuraTech also offers job shadowing, which some local students have participated in, as well as facility tours.  According to Wehrle, “Students are amazed when they come through here and see how clean and up to date our equipment and facilities are, and see that manufacturing can be a great career.”

Figure 2: Career Letter of Intent Signing Day at Holmen High School, Holmen, WI

DuraTech is also a member of  The Upper Mississippi Manufacturing Alliance, or TUMMA. TUMMA is an alliance of manufacturers throughout the Upper Mississippi River Region of Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin.  TUMMA helps to target workforce development initiatives to promote manufacturing careers.  If you are a student, or a high school counselor who is interested in learning more about any of these opportunities, please contact the Human Resources Department at DuraTech Industries.   608-781-2570.   www.duratech.com