GPS helping high schools launch apprenticeship programs

Manufacturing & Logistics

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GPS Education Partners has relied on a tried-and-true model for years. Since its launch in 2000, the Brookfield-based nonprofit has partnered with local manufacturers to provide high school juniors and seniors with work-based education programs, in which students take courses on-site at the businesses, called “education centers,” and apply those lessons on the manufacturing floor.

It’s worked for the organization, which has grown from just five students at Waukesha-based Generac Power Systems Inc. in its initial year to now having served 500 students, in partnership with 100 businesses.

Zack Bass, a Milwaukee Lutheran High School senior, assembles a Briggs & Stratton lawn mower in the school’s manufacturing lab. Credit Lauren Anderson

Now, as worker shortages persist and a growing number of schools look to bolster their career and technical education offerings, GPS is expanding its reach with a new service model.

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The organization is beginning to provide consulting services to schools as they launch their own apprenticeship education programs – a hybrid of the traditional GPS education center model.

“It’s a change in how we are looking to provide more opportunities,” said Andy Hepburn, chief innovation officer. “We field a lot of questions from entities around the state of Wisconsin and outside of the state, saying, ‘That’s really innovative. How can we do that?’ So we’re working on creating partnerships where we’re more running alongside, providing expertise, training and resources and providing a service to folks who want to do some type of work-based learning or apprenticeships or career/technical education experience but don’t have the pieces to do it right away.”

Milwaukee Lutheran High School is that kind of school. Recognizing the need to expand its career and technical education offerings for students – about 25 percent of whom are on track to pursue a two-year degree or enter the workforce directly after graduation – the private school launched its Red Knight Institute Career Academy in 2015.

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Through a partnership with Briggs & Stratton Corp., the school began offering an internship program, through which students clocked in four four-hour shifts per week at the company’s Burleigh plant for a semester. It provided a basic, entry-level training experience for the students.

But back at school, leaders saw the need for a more robust manufacturing curriculum, said assistant principal Mike Waugh. Waugh met a GPS representative in 2016 and realized the organization had already developed the kind of curriculum he was seeking.

A new kind of partnership was forged – one that allows MLHS students to stay on campus in their recently renovated Career Academy wing and rely on GPS as a resource to navigate the school-business partnership.

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Students enrolled in the program spend their school days on the MLHS campus, where school staff teach the manufacturing and safety training curriculum. Students then visit Briggs & Stratton to gain hands-on experience.

GPS has helped the school launch its introduction to manufacturing and advanced manufacturing courses and the school plans to launch a math for trades class next year.

Interest in the Career Academy has grown substantially, with the program seeing an increase from 10 students in 2015 to 86 students this year.

Waugh said the school is looking to meet the needs of students who aren’t headed to a four-year college program, while also helping fill a talent shortage in the region.

“The largest sector in our economy is manufacturing,” Waugh said. “And we know that there are viable careers and competitive wages in the industry. Milwaukee in particular has a diverse manufacturing sector and all manufacturers need skilled students. So we feel we are meeting a worker gap that already exists.”

More of these types of partnerships are likely on the horizon for GPS, Hepburn said, as the organization looks to expand its services to more rural areas and communities outside of Wisconsin.

“We’re excited about the opportunity,” he said. “The more we can collaborate and work with folks, the more successful we’re going to be in solving the skills gap and addressing student interests for those who desire to pursue technical careers.”

Meanwhile, the organization – which serves largely the southeastern Wisconsin area – continues to extend its footprint through its traditional model. GPS this year added Menasha Corp. to its list of partners, expanding its program to more students in the Fox Valley area.

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