By ABC of Wisconsin and Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development Staff

Labor shortage stories seem to cover the front page of newspapers daily. Employers across diverse industries, including construction, healthcare, information technology, manufacturing and transportation report increasing difficulty attracting and retaining enough skilled workers to meet the demand for their products and services. For example, Wisconsin's short-term projections for construction laborers indicate that nearly 2,200 openings will occur annually through 2019, including new openings and replacements. Long-term projections show a similar picture with 540 construction laborer openings created annually through 2024.

The Department of Workforce Development (DWD) has been working with many public and private sector partners to devise and deploy strategies to help employers meet their needs for skilled workers. The Wisconsin Youth Apprenticeship (YA) program is one of the rapidly growing strategies that is gaining popularity among ABC members.

John Paul Rubenzner is a former youth apprentice with Altmann Construction Co., Inc., who is now in his second year as an adult apprentice in carpentry with the company.
"The Youth Apprenticeship program provides students with the in-demand skills required to fill good-paying jobs in Wisconsin's booming construction industry," DWD Secretary Ray Allen said. "Strengthening and growing this vital program will ensure that Wisconsin's future workforce will be prepared to meet the needs of our growing economy now and into the future."

 The YA program has been connecting employers with high school student talent for over 25 years, creating a scalable and successful program with input from industry. More than 3,000 employers and 4,300 youth apprentices across Wisconsin participated in the YA program during the 2017/18 school year. This included over 300 youth apprentices in the Architecture and Construction program area.

“Our company has experienced great success with the Youth Apprenticeship program, including providing us with another conduit for potential untapped talent,” said Tammy Meyers, Human Resources Director at Altmann Construction Company, Inc. “Our youth apprentices have interest in working in construction, and we are continually impressed with their ability to balance school, apprenticeship requirements and extracurricular activities, such as sports."

“Previously, a number of employers expressed concerns or were unwilling to accept youth apprentices who were under the age of 18,” said Dane County School Consortium Director Josh Fassl. “Thanks to the student learner exemption and extra program protections, many more employers are participating and finding great value in the YA program.”

According to Fassl, contractors report that their youth apprentices are employed longer than the average new hire, committing to a full year or two through their participation in YA. Plus, they have greater potential to stay in the industry after graduating from high school.

Employers extend permanent job offers to more than 75 percent of graduating youth apprentices annually, demonstrating that YA is an excellent pipeline for recruiting and retaining loyal, well-trained talent.

“YA also serves as a bridge to Wisconsin's nationally recognized Registered Apprenticeship program," said Fassl. “By providing a seamless transition between these important job training programs, we save employers and apprentices time and money."

Also coordinated by DWD, Wisconsin's Registered Apprenticeship (RA) program enables employers to build a customized training system, immersing trainees in company culture while helping them earn good-paying, family-supporting wages as they learn a high demand trade.

Sarah Straka, Mount Horeb School District's Director of Instruction adds, “For some youth, it is the allure of exploring an occupation or career pathway and determining if it is the right fit before pursuing employment or post-secondary education goals.” For other students, they are excited about getting to leave school and earning pay and credit to gain job skills in a field of interest, Straka said.

About YA

YA is administered by DWD and coordinated by regional consortia. These consortia are often comprised of school districts, technical colleges, chambers of commerce, individual employers and other workforce-interested parties. Within state parameters, local YA offerings are designed to meet the needs of local employers.

There are 11 approved YA occupational areas available to employers for hiring youth apprentices. Each occupational area typically contains several specific career pathways. For example, within the Architecture and Construction occupational area, youth apprentices may be focused on any of the following career pathways: carpentry; electrical; masonry/concrete; mechanical/HVAC; plumbing/sprinkler fitting; architectural drafting; or architectural planning.

During the youth apprenticeship, students continue their studies toward graduation. This includes taking courses related to their employment as a way of enhancing what is being learned on the job site. Related instruction may be taken at high school, a local technical college or even online, depending on the availability of appropriate courses. Each youth apprentice works with the YA Coordinator at their school to meet program requirements, including related classroom instruction which is not the responsibility of participating employers.

Another important element of the YA program is the identification of a worksite mentor, which is the responsibility of participating employers. This may be the person responsible for training the apprentice or someone else within the company. The mentor helps acclimate the youth apprentice to the workplace, ensuring that students understand company culture and expectations. Mentors also prove to be invaluable at helping youth make a smooth transition into the world of work.

Straka uses the metaphor of a “scaffold of learning” when talking about mentorship.

“Contractors need to approach training from the student perspective whose only exposure may have been during woodworking or construction classes at school. Since a construction jobsite is very different than a high school's wood shop, it is important to select a mentor who is willing to nurture, guide and teach youth apprentices,” Straka said.

Straka adds, “Make sure the mentor is there for them, explaining jobsite conduct and why it is important that they know exactly what to do on the jobsite”.

“Good mentors are critical to the success of youth apprentices as is effective communication between the student, parents, the employer and school,” Meyers said.

Hiring Youth Apprentices

Youth apprentices become employees of the participating business. This is an important distinction between YA and other school-to-work efforts, such as job shadowing and most internships. The connection to real, paid work and its corresponding responsibilities and benefits is a fundamental element of YA and is the primary reason why it is so valuable to the youth apprentice and their employer.
“The student is an employee. The student has to go through the interview process, and it has to be the right fit for the employer before an opportunity is offered,” Straka said.

Because youth apprentices are employees, employers must: 1) Pay youth apprentices at least minimum wage; and 2) provide worker's compensation policy coverage. Typically aged 16-18, youth apprentices are not required to obtain work permits for their apprenticeship employment. Unlike other youth their ages, youth apprentices also may work during school hours.

There are types of work that youth apprentices and youth, in general, are not allowed to engage in because they have been deemed hazardous, including within the construction industry. However, there is not a blanket prohibition on youth working at construction sites, as some contractors have mistakenly believed. Youth apprentices are considered student learners, which is a legal classification that allows them to engage in some work that otherwise would be disallowed, as long as certain conditions are met.

Brent Yauchler of The Electrician, Inc., in Mount Horeb, has youth apprentices as part of his team. “It’s amazing how you can create opportunities both for yourself and for these young people,” he said.

He encourages other ABC members to carve-out room within their operations to allow a younger person to come in and experience construction; someone who may have some interest in the trades as a career.

The fact that over 300 youth apprentices worked in construction positions in 2017/18 is a testament to the opportunities that await potential YA employers and students in this growing occupational area.

“They may start out in the electrical, HVAC or carpentry in general construction. Then they get to the senior year, and they start to develop confidence,” Yauchler said. “They start to get their legs underneath them. They glean a roadmap from the company and other employees and are able to make good decisions.”

“They realize the opportunities ahead, and understand that there are good companies that support RA as a viable career path. Some youth apprentices are insistent about becoming journey level workers, and that’s fantastic!”

For additional information on specific types of work that may be in question, please review the following resource from DWD's Equal Rights Division (ERD): Manufacturing & Construction Equipment & Wisconsin's Employment of Minor Law factsheet.

Contact Information

Employers may contact ERD's Labor Standards Bureau with specific questions:

For more information on the Wisconsin Youth Apprenticeship Program, including contact information for regional YA coordinators, visit ya.wi.gov or send email to ya@dwd.wisconsin.gov.