RACINE COUNTY — After his sophomore year at Horlick High School, Michael Wittrock entered an automotive apprenticeship, which meant he would be bused to Park High for classes.

For two years, Wittrock took classes and worked at Martin’s Chrysler, Dodge, Jeep & Ram, 1422 Main St., Union Grove, and after he graduated this past spring he walked right into a job at Martin’s.

“For the last two years of high school, you got to leave school at noon or so, come out to work and you’d get experience in the classroom and you’d also get hands-on experience,” Wittrock said. “It was a phenomenal learning experience.”

It’s that type of experience that area officials are working to increase to help make Racine County youth more prepared to enter the workforce.

Together, Racine County, the Racine Unified School District, Higher Expectations of Racine County and the Racine Area Manufacturers and Commerce are aiming to grow the number of apprenticeships in the county from 70 to 300 over the next several years.

Employers interested in apprenticeships

Barb Mauer, youth apprenticeship coordinator for RAMAC, said they had 58 Racine Unified students complete the program last year with 43 employers, and six students are continuing in the program.

“Each year, the number of participants keeps increasing,” Mauer said. “I have never worked with an employer that did not like the program.”

The youth apprenticeship program has been active since 1994, Mauer said, and since 2006 a total of 482 Unified students have gone through the program.

“RAMAC is involved because of the business connections they can provide to the Racine Unified students,” Mauer said.

Companies such as SC Johnson, Racine Metal Fab and InSinkErator are among the largest employers in the program. Employers in health services, such as Ascension All Saints and United Hospital System of Kenosha, also are involved.

In addition to experience with cars and motorcycles, students can get experience in finance with opportunities at Educators Credit Union and Tri City Bank, and recently the program added a marketing program which brought in several retail employers.

“The majority of employers are eager to take on more students, and call to see when they can start interviewing for the next school year,” Mauer said. “They really like the fact that they can train students that may become part of their future workforce.”

Unified creating apprenticeship plan

Dan Thielen, chief of secondary schools transformation for Unified, said the district is working with RAMAC and other organizations to create a plan to increase the number of opportunities students have.

“Right now, we lead the state in the number of apprenticeships with about 70,” Thielen said. “The goal over the next five years is to increase that … we need a more formalized plan in place in order to get these goals established.”

Thielen said the district is developing a “talent pipeline” that will help feed local companies with local employees.

“We have a lot of automotive students who do youth apprenticeships,” Thielen said, adding students can have the opportunity to make money while in class. “(Students) can take two technical-related classes along with the apprenticeship position that’s a paid position.”

The district has been helping employers with questions, Thielen said, specifically with insurance and helping to develop “an on-the-job curriculum” for the students. Additionally, the apprenticeships have helped students understand what manufacturing is really like.

“What we’ve learned overall is how to make the program more robust,” Thielen said. “Our students are very prepared and the students are engaged in these opportunities.”

Mark Mundl, Racine County’s manager of workforce solutions, said the county is putting together the infrastructure to help businesses develop apprenticeship programs to help replace leaving and retiring workers.

“They’re a good tool for businesses to develop their workforce and fill high-skill vacancies,” Mundl said.

Companies interested in being involved should contact Mauer at 262-898-4265 or at bmauer@racinechamber.com.

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