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Students embrace work-study program

June 11, 2013

Bryan Obst and other local machine industry leaders are struggling to find skilled laborers that can handle the math and engineering that operating state-of-the-art equipment demands.

"We have no choice but to grow our own talent," said Obst, corporate recruiter at Trace-A-Matic in Brookfield.

Through its assembly of precision machinery, Trace-A-Matic, 21125 Enterprise Ave., serves a multitude of industries, including oil, gas, mining, construction, aerospace, food services, printing, pharmaceutical and railroads.

"You name it, we dabble in it," Obst said.

In the fall of 2012, Obst reached out to Elmbrook School District administrators in hopes of creating a work-study program for high school students. With his own kids in the district, Obst knew it was the perfect place to recruit.

"We don't need operators. We need full-blown engineers running our machines," Obst said. "We looked for a variety of different ways to find people because we're not finding the horsepower we need to run those machines."

Real world opportunity

By January, district administrators, Trace-A-Matic and Waukesha County Technical College had come together to craft a pilot program tailored to meet the workforce needs of local employers, fulfill high school graduation requirements and offer free college credits.

Elmbrook and other school districts have been encouraged by the state Department of Public Instruction to create learning experiences that allow high school students to enroll in post-secondary courses at a four-year college, a technical school or other private educational institution.

Starting next fall, work-study sudents will work to complete remaining high school graduation requirements during the first morning block period. Courses at WCTC will be scheduled in the late morning and afternoon and will fulfill remaining elective and math graduation requirements for senior students, just as Youth Options courses do.

Upon completion of the program, students will earn a high school diploma and machine tool operation technical certificate, as well as participate in competitive interviews for employment at Trace-A-Matic or other local manufacturing firms.

The program will come at no cost to the district, as WCTC and Trace-A-Matic have agreed to fund it. WCTC has secured grants with the state Department of Workforce Development and the Department of Public Instruction.

Building a model

Curt Mould, Elmbrook director of secondary education, said one of the goals of the pilot program was to build a model that could be expanded into other fields.

"It's a great opportunity for us to provide to our kids," Mould said. "They leave with a diploma, a certificate and with employability skills. Some of them will have guaranteed jobs, some of which will include up to 100 percent tuition reimbursement."

Mould wasn't sure how much student interest the program would elicit, so Elmbrook partnered with the Waukesha School District to ensure filling the 12 open work-study spots at Trace-A-Matic.

More than 20 students applied, including at least 11 from Elmbrook, and Trace-A-Matic was forced to turn students away. The program increased enrollment to 18, and then again to 20.

Obst had the applicants take the company culture index survey, just like regular employees do. The survey exposes drive, determination, stamina and learning style. Two students showed up in suits, and one followed up with a "thank you" note.

Obst also had them take the company math test.

"There were several students from East that didn't even use a calculator, which completely awed me," he said.

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