‘It can’t just be education. It can’t just be industry.’ A partnership template

DECLO — Local businesses had a problem. Now, local students have an opportunity.

The problem: an extremely low unemployment rate in Cassia and Minidoka counties, 2.3 percent in October. With fewer applicants seeking jobs, food manufacturers scrambled to fill vacancies. They were reduced to a zero-sum game, poaching workers from neighboring plants. “That’s when we decided that we had to grow our own,” said Chet Jeppesen, a workforce consultant with the Idaho Department of Labor’s Burley office.

The opportunity: Students can enroll in a unique apprenticeship program that offers high school credits, the promise of a summer job as a machine operator — and a permanent job after graduation.

The students have to work for it. They must live by workplace rules, such as a three-strikes-and-you’re-out absentee policy. They have to go through rigorous workplace training.

And they still have to juggle everything else on a high school student’s to-do list.

For Declo senior Traver Larson, that meant a full fall. In the morning, an apprenticeship class and a medical class at the district’s technical center in Burley, about 15 minutes west of Declo. A full slate of senior classes in the afternoon. Football practice after school. An evening dual-credit class in medical terminology.

The juggle, and the lesson in work ethic, is part of the appeal. “The commitment is a big thing,” he said.

Partners in the Mini-Cassia project say their idea has promise, for other communities and other industries.

A rapid rollout

Larson is in his second year in the apprenticeship program. The same goes for the Cassia County and Minidoka County school districts.

Getting the program off the ground required the districts to work together. That doesn’t always come naturally, said Cassia Regional Technical Center director Curtis Richins. “That river seems to be a barrier,” said Richins, referring to the Snake River, the defining physical feature in a region where the economy is predicated on raising crops and processing food.

The local manufacturers expected the districts to work together — but the industry also was expected to join the partnership. The state provided a two-year, $249,000 grant, but businesses had to come up with matching cash or in-kind contributions.

Then there was the matter of working with the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration, to secure a waiver to allow 16-year-olds to work on the floor of a food processing plant. Local officials found there was no similar waiver in place for food processing or manufacturing plants anywhere in the United States.

“We were starting from scratch,” Jeppesen said. “There was no template.”

There was a sense of urgency.

The Cassia district hired J. Wing to set up the course — and work on a contract basis, with his salary covered by High Desert Milk, a dairy processing plant. Wing was hired on Nov. 7. Classes started on Nov. 15.

Wing at least had some experience, having run an apprenticeship program for the College of Southern Idaho in Twin Falls. The first-year students had no such background.

“None of these students had ever been in a food processing plant,” Wing said. “They’d only seen the four walls on the outside.”

From the classroom to the plant floor

The school-to-work transition wasn’t all serious business. When student apprentices toured McCain Foods’ Burley plant, sampling McCain’s deep-fried brownies was a highlight of the day. 

Classroom work focused on preparing students for the summer internship — and taking a meaningful but safe step into the workplace. Students spent 10 to 12 hours studying OSHA regulations, such as preventing falls and fires. The online courses allowed students to learn at their own pace.

“We’re not going to send a student into that environment who’s unprepared,” Wing said.

Students weren’t just on the floor to watch. They were expected to step up.

At McCain, that means working as a line operator, as bags of frozen French fries are weighed, checked for metals and foreign objects and placed in cases for shipping. By the end of the summer, apprentices ran the line.

There was a little bit of a nervous feeling,” said Caden Crider, a Declo senior.

Caden Crider

The summer was a new experience for plant workers and apprentices alike.

High Desert Milk’s employees understand the need to develop new employees, company controller Karla Robinson said, even if that requires a different routine.

“They aren’t used to having to stay with someone,” she said. “It’s a little bit of an adjustment.”

Larson had to adjust to the realities of a demanding work schedule, and 12-hour days that cut into time he would have spent playing baseball.

“I missed a lot of games but it was worth it.”

Is an apprenticeship for everyone?

Not necessarily, based on Mini-Cassia’s experience.

Seventeen students signed up last fall. Seven finished the year, and six worked through the summer.

Wing said he could tell right away that Larson and Crider would stick. They’re good students, involved in extracurricular activities. And Wing said he can tell, when he makes his presentation, which students are willing to commit. “They kind of lean forward a little bit more.”  

Richins takes the turnover in stride. If students try out work in manufacturing and go a different route, that’s OK. It’s part of the process of trying new things and making a plan for the future. ”You’ve got another 60 years to decide to go to work.”

Even for the apprentices, work in a plant isn’t necessarily a long-term option.

One of High Desert Milk’s recent interns joined the plant full-time, bringing the company one step closer to meeting its staffing needs. But the company also works with former interns who want to juggle work and classes at CSI.

Larson and Crider both plan to go to four-year college.

Apprenticeships and the 60 percent goal

If a student apprentice goes straight from high school to a machine operator’s job — even for a decent wage, with portable job skills in hand — that doesn’t apply towards Idaho’s “60 percent goal.” The goal measures postsecondary completion beyond high school, be it a two- or four-year college degree or a one-year professional certificate.

That’s a sore spot for some educators. They say the state’s goal doesn’t account for high school graduates who are ready for a good job — and this, they say, should count as a successful outcome.

Still, Mini-Cassia officials want to stick with the machine operator apprenticeship program, and make it available to any student who is interested.

Cassia County district spokeswoman Debbie Critchfield sees a template in the making. Critchfield, who also sits on the State Board of Education, believes other industries will jump on board, as they come to see the benefits of an apprenticeship.

For the template to work, schools need to move more quickly, to meet the demands of industry. But the business community needs to make a matching commitment.

“That’s the only way we’re going to solve these problems,” she said. “It can’t just be education. It can’t just be industry.”

This series, at a glance

 

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