Want to build a talent pipeline? These Milwaukee programs are starting early

Teens Grow Greens high school students have the opportunity to gain leadership skills by mentoring younger students.
Teens Grow Greens high school students have the opportunity to gain leadership skills by mentoring younger students. Credit: Teens Grow Greens

Last updated on December 20th, 2021 at 02:35 pm

By the time a student graduates from Cristo Rey Jesuit High School in Milwaukee, it’s possible they already have experience working for a Fortune 500 company, an academic medical center, a family-owned firm and a local nonprofit organization.

The high school, part of the national Cristo Rey network, offers a corporate work-study program that pairs employer partners and students, who put in roughly seven hours of work for them weekly throughout the academic year. 

The program is run similar to a staffing agency; the school sets up students with work opportunities based on their academic performance, previous work experience and interests.

Thanks to a large list of corporate partners, there are many opportunities to choose from, including companies in banking and financial services, insurance, architecture, construction, legal services, manufacturing, health care and utilities. The program is structured so that students can try any four of those industries over the course of their high school career. Some of the dozens of partners include A.O. Smith, Associated Bank, Baird, BMO Harris Bank, CG Schmidt, Harley-Davidson, HellermannTyton, Kohl’s and Marcus Theatres. 

By the time they graduate, students have clocked in 1,200 hours of professional work experience.

“It’s about bringing corporate work experience into the educational experience earlier,” said Amy Leahy, director of the program. “So, instead of waiting for students to get to college and expose them through college internships, we move that earlier and sooner up into the pipeline of talent.”

Working in a real-world setting offers several benefits for students, school leaders say. It provides exposure to an array of career opportunities that they might not have otherwise considered, giving students an ability to visualize themselves in those settings. It also allows students – many of whom come from limited financial means – to begin building up a professional network even before they graduate high school. 

“Many of our students are first-generation college-bound students and might not have the same networks others have,” Leahy said. “Many are coming from lower socioeconomic situations and because they are first-generation (college-bound), having the time to expose them to different careers is super important.” 

The program also helps students develop “soft” skills, such as business etiquette and appropriate written and verbal communication styles. 

“Eye contact, handshaking – these are skills some teenagers may not have been formally introduced to that are really required for success in the workplace,” Leahy said, noting freshmen spend a whole week preparing to enter the workplace before their first placement. 

Supervisors provide daily feedback of students’ performance using an electronic timecard system, and the students also do self-assessments. 

“They are learning how to deal with and adapt to feedback,” Leahy said. 

For employer partners, participating in the program is a long-term investment with a potential payoff years down the line. It’s an opportunity to establish a touchpoint with diverse talent early on and to make progress on their
DEI targets. 

Because the school is only in its sixth year, many of its alumni have not yet graduated from college or entered the workforce. However, Leahy said some alumni end up returning to one of their high school work sites for college internships, and employers are eager to maintain relationships with students through college graduation. 

“About 90% of our graduates stay in Wisconsin-based schools (for college), some go to Minnesota, some go to Illinois, but the majority stay close to home and in the state of Wisconsin,” she said. “For employer partners, that’s a really great thing. The likelihood they’ll have access to that talent is much more probable. (The students) will probably work locally and will look for a pathway to a career locally.”

Developing real-world skills

Charlie Uihlein had been teaching world history in a Milwaukee high school for a couple of years when he realized much of the content he was covering in the classroom wasn’t the kind of stuff students would ultimately be tested on in the real world. 

Communication, leadership and teamwork are all highly valued in the workplace, but few would argue those qualities are best gleaned through sitting in lectures and reading textbooks. 

“I also saw that a lot of the students I was working with wanted jobs but, because of a lack of network or because they didn’t have certain skills, they weren’t getting them,” Uihlein said.

So, he launched out on his own to start a program that would cultivate those skills while also giving students an opportunity to earn money. 

Teens Grow Greens was born. The nonprofit organization provides internships for high school students, using urban agriculture as the vehicle for teaching critical life skills. 

In its inaugural year seven years ago, the program employed 12 teenagers on Milwaukee’s north side. This year, it has 60 teen employees participating in the organization’s north and south side sites. Teens Grow Greens is available to any high school student in Milwaukee, including public, charter and private schools. 

The program, which up until now has been offered as a nine-month internship, allows students to earn roughly $3,000 and learn about different career paths, including agriculture, hospitality and entrepreneurship. Beginning next year, the organization will break up the program into three consecutive internship experiences. 

One of the most visible components of TGG’s programs is Webers Greenhouse, a formerly family-owned greenhouse on Milwaukee’s north side that the nonprofit acquired in 2018. It’s run with the help of paid apprentices and interns, and serves as a home base and community hub for the organization. It sells organically grown plants, herbs and vegetables for community members to purchase and plant in their own gardens.

Every teen leaves the program with a resume, digital badges connected to the skills they acquire and connections to jobs after they graduate, leaders say. 

For those who want to continue working for the organization after the internship, TGG offers paid apprenticeship opportunities, including urban gardening, greenhouse and education tracks. Next year, the program will add food and beverage, entrepreneurship and grounds and maintenance tracks.

Teen apprentices take on their own leadership projects, such as developing a community garden at the Milwaukee County Zoo or heading up Webers’ marketing efforts. 

“It will look different depending on what a student’s passions are, as well as what the needs are from the organizations they’re partnering with,” said Sylvia Wilson, program director for TGG. 

Upon completing the apprenticeship, students earn two high school credits and a nationally recognized youth apprenticeship completion certificate from the Department of Workforce Development. The organization has also developed a partnership with Milwaukee Area Technical College that will allow students to gain three to six college credits through their portfolio of leadership experiences. 

After students complete TGG’s internships and apprenticeships, TGG staff provide post-graduation support to help students with their goals, like graduating high school, becoming employed or launching an entrepreneurship project.

“Right now, we’re looking at registered apprenticeship through DWD. … We’re also working to garner a pool of employers that are willing to hire these students that come with three years of experience that they can use to transfer into entry-level employment,” Wilson said. “And then some will choose to go to higher education, so they will be able to take some of the credits and then actually apply those to a certificate, associate degree or go on to their bachelor’s degree.” 

Since 2014, 100% of TGG alumni have graduated from high school or are on track to graduate; and over 80% have been able to maintain employment after
the program. 

This story is part of the 2022 BizTimes Media Giving Guide. See the entire publication here:

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