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At E.K. Machine, apprenticeship program keeps growing

At E.K. Machine, apprenticeship program keeps growing

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Local high school career counselors and tech ed teachers rubbed elbows with state government luminaries in Fall River last Friday, during a special Manufacturing Day event at E.K. Machine that celebrated the company’s youth apprenticeship program.

A one-stop fabrication and machining shop with two factories in Fall River, E.K. Machine began its youth apprenticeship program eight years ago and currently works with 10 area school districts to give students hands-on opportunities to learn about manufacturing careers.

Only one-third of jobs require a bachelor's degree today, Michelle Eilbes, a senior human resources generalist who coordinates E.K.’s youth apprenticeship program, told the crowd gathered for the event. “So the question is, what are we as manufacturers and schools doing to prepare students for the other 66 percent of jobs out there that do not require a college degree?”

Eilbes said E.K. wants to establish relationships with the local school districts to make opportunities available to the students who live here. The company offers apprenticeships in machining, fabrication, welding and engineering.

“Our goal is to have eight apprentices each year, ideally with two apprentices in each department,” Eilbes said.

This year, the business is employing seven youth apprentices from four different school districts and two technical colleges.

Two of those apprentices are from right down the road.

Jeremy Dowdell, a senior at Fall River High School, is an apprentice in the CNC department, and Hayden Huber, a 2014 graduate of FRHS who is currently enrolled in welding classes at Moraine Park Technical College in Beaver Dam, is an apprentice in the welding department.

Both students spend their mornings at school and then their afternoons at E.K., where they did a lot of watching and learning at first, and then gradually started running equipment themselves as they got more comfortable with it.

Their apprenticeships last one year, and the students are collecting paychecks the entire time.

In the CNC department, Dowdell is running saws, mills and lathes. In the welding department, Huber is learning to weld everything from small jig-and-fixture stuff to huge tanks.

E.K.’s welding manager, Sean Walker, said the apprentices learn real-world skills. “On a tank, they may have have to weld something that’s three feet long. College and high school wouldn’t prepare you for that. But we will, because it happens in the real world.”

Nancy Everson, the school-to-career specialist at Sun Prairie High School, has been sending students to E.K. Machine’s apprenticeship program since its inception.

“E.K. just goes backwards and forwards to do anything we want,” Everson said.

Walker, E.K.’s welding manager, comes to Sun Prairie High School and works with students and instructors there. Plus, the company gives the school’s tech ed department scrap metal and allows classes to take field trips to its factories.

“I can’t thank E.K. Machine enough,” Everson said.

Youth apprenticeships do not require any experience, Eilbes said. “We provide all of the technical training. The only requirement is that the student is enrolled in a related class or has already taken a related class.”

The company also welcomes job shadows — which is how Huber got familiar with E.K. and decided to apply for the apprenticeship program — and does classroom presentations on manufacturing careers.

“Collectively we’re making a difference,” said Steve Slack, E.K.’s director of quality and engineering. “The fact that we have 10 school districts represented here today, shows progress. The fact that we have seven youth apprenticeships from four different school districts and two technical colleges just here at E.K. Machine shows that we’re making progress to address the skills gap.”

Among the state government dignitaries and officials who attended the Manufacturing Day event were: Georgia Maxwell, the deputy secretary of the Department of Workforce Development; Tricia Braun, the deputy secretary and COO of Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation; Buckley Brinkmann, executive director and CEO of Wisconsin Manufacturing Extension partnership; Jim Morgan, vice president of Wisconsin Manufacturer’s & Commerce; Jonah Schiestle, SkillsUSA Wisconsin state treasurer; Morna Foy, president of the Wisconsin Technical College System; and Tony Evers, state superintendent of the Department of Public Instruction.

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