Qualified Operator Candidates? This Utility Didn't Have to Look Far

Wisconsin’s Youth Apprenticeship Program provides an on-ramp for high school students to explore careers in the water and wastewater industry.

Qualified Operator Candidates? This Utility Didn't Have to Look Far

Youth Apprentice Joe Desotelle (right) and Rob Michaelson, P.E., water systems manager, in the lab at Manitowoc Public Utilities. 

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Rob Michaelson, P.E., water systems manager at the Manitowoc (Wisconsin) Public Utilities, faced some impending retirements and didn’t know where to find a candidate pool.

His dilemma was not unique: As the retirement tsunami sweeps through the water and wastewater world, finding qualified replacements is a daunting challenge.

Fortunately for Michaelson, Wisconsin offers a Youth Apprenticeship Program, created in 1991 by the state Department of Workforce Development. This school-to-work initiative is designed for high school students who want hands-on learning in an occupational area at a work site along with classroom instruction. Even though the program has expanded significantly since its inception, many employers are still unaware of it.

Michaelson was able to tap into it, though, and his utility has hosted a series of apprentices from local high schools in recent years.

Uphill struggle

Although Wisconsin has co-op and job-shadow programs, they tend to be inconsistent and don’t allow enough time for skill development, according to the Cooperative Education Service Agency Region 6.

Two northeast Wisconsin technical colleges offer associate degrees in environmental engineering technology for water and wastewater operators, but Michaelson wanted to reach local students. “To reap the rewards in a few years, you must plant the trees now,” he says. “So I looked for ways to tell students they could enjoy good pay with benefits by working for their hometown utility.”

When approaching high schools, Michaelson had difficulty finding the right people to talk to; it was a challenge to persuade principals and guidance counselors to allow him to address a class or assembly, even for just five minutes, he recalls.

Then Michaelson learned about the Youth Apprenticeship Program from a utility employee whose son was enrolled in the Youth Apprentice agriculture course. High school juniors and seniors in the program receive academic and technical instruction with mentored on-the-job training in various occupations. “They’re also paid,” Michaelson says. “After high school graduation and a performance evaluation, they earn a skill certificate worth credit at a state technical college.”

All about the kids

Eager to learn how to incorporate the program into the water industry, Michaelson sought out Kari Mueller, at the time in charge of Manitowoc County’s Youth Apprentice Program. “When I learned it had a natural resources component, I jumped on it,” he says.

Manitowoc Public Utilities had not yet become a Youth Apprentice partner, but the leadership sanctioned Michaelson to attend the agency’s orientation sessions, which explained what was expected of employers and mentors.

Youth Apprentice coordinators vet potential employers thoroughly to ensure that they fit into the program’s curriculum. “No one enters into this lightly,” Michaelson says. “We must be fully committed to coaching and mentoring students, to encouraging them if they’re struggling, and to emphasizing why it is important to master employment skills. This is about preparing kids for life in the real world and less about a facility gaining a part-time employee.”

Employers are tasked with helping students discover which career path they prefer and teaching them skills such as accepting responsibilities, punctuality, communicating with supervisors, and mastering job requirements. “Although they may have worked in fast food, or mowed lawns, or babysat, this may be their first exposure to a professional workplace and learning a trade,” says Michaelson.

Not for everyone

Some aren’t prepared for the reality check. Youth Apprentice coordinators warned that those students may not take training seriously because they view the program as a way to spend three or four hours each day skipping school. That made Michaelson nervous, since he was unsure how to cope with cavalier attitudes. “Employers are expected to hold students accountable,” he says. “They cannot goof off and still receive a paycheck. They must learn to earn.”

Program safeguards usually weed out lackluster candidates. Invested high schools promote the Youth Apprentice agenda to juniors and seniors. Liaison officers then send Mueller their list of who is interested in which field. She matches applicants with employers, who then meet with parents to set the expectations. “Parents want their children to succeed,” says Michaelson. “Many are ecstatic because they wish they had this opportunity when they were young.”

Michaelson was pleasantly surprised to see local Youth Apprentices take the program seriously and apply themselves. “Some kids aren’t career driven and probably envisioned a life of shift work on assembly lines after graduation,” he says. “When they heard they could try a trade without spending two or four years in technical colleges, they were excited.”

Try before buy

Most students have an idea what trade they’d like to try. The one-year Youth Apprentice program for seniors requires 450 hours of on-the-job training and 180 classroom hours. The requirements double for juniors in the two-year program.

Classroom instruction can be delivered by the high school, technical college or employer. Once into the work, however, some students discover they don’t like it. According to Michaelson, even this is a success, because the young adults then do not spend time and money earning a degree in a field they will not enjoy.

Michaelson spread the word about the Youth Apprentice Program to other Manitowoc County utility directors, including Ross Blaha in nearby Two Rivers, who in 2019 was struggling to replace a retired team member. “Because treating water and wastewater is not glamorous, students have no interest in environmental science until it’s promoted by word-of-mouth,” says Michaelson.

Nevertheless, Michaelson has a 100% success rate in the program. Tyler Luebke, a junior at Manitowoc Lincoln High School in 2016, was his first youth apprentice. Luebke also worked as a summer intern before earning an associate degree in environmental engineering technology from Northeast Wisconsin Technical College. He is now a wastewater operator with the city of Sheboygan.

Other participants included Darren Hagenow, a Mishicot High School graduate earning his associate degree in environmental engineering technology at NWTC; and Evan Lischka, a Manitowoc Lutheran High School graduate majoring in environmental science at Concordia University Wisconsin. Joseph Desotelle, a senior at Mishicot High, is MPU’s current youth apprentice.

Planting seeds

According to Michaelson, the Youth Apprentice Program is about feeding the industry, not a specific plant, by enrolling as many students as possible in technical colleges to study environmental engineering. Nevertheless, he was disappointed when a previous youth apprentice didn’t apply for a recent job opening at his utility.

“But honestly,” he says, “it’s good for these kids to branch out, test the world, and see what it’s like working in different plants and cities. It’s important they find out who they are and what they want out of life.”

Michaelson and Blaha did fill their latest job openings. “I’ve been hiring operators since 2000, and this was one of my best candidate pools,” Michaelson says. “There were four strong applicants, all with associate degrees.

“Apprenticeships have always been part of the American culture, and they are very much in vogue today. They provide tremendous benefits to employers seeking talent because they need look no further than their local high schools.”   


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