Four Bradley Tech High School students donned Harley-Davidson hats in an emotional signing ceremony Wednesday, becoming the first youth apprentices in a new collaboration between Milwaukee Public Schools, Milwaukee Area Technical College and one of Milwaukee’s most storied manufacturers.
“I’m so fortunate. I’m so honored to be here,” said senior Debora Oquendo-Candelaria, whose mother and two younger siblings turned out for the event at Harley headquarters on the city’s west side.
“This is not an opportunity everybody gets, especially teenagers in high school.”
Oquendo-Candelaria and her fellow apprentices — Jamaris Flowers, Ethan Sanchez and Kiya Mooney — were selected from more than a dozen Bradley Tech students who spent the last few months touring Harley facilities and learning about the opportunities available there in the skilled trades.
As apprentices, they’ll spend the coming school year at Harley — earning $16 an hour working in tool-and-die making, machine repair and maintenance, and electrical maintenance — and juggling coursework at Bradley Tech and MATC.
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The collaboration is aimed at recruiting and preparing a new generation of workers and narrowing the so-called skills gap that has made it difficult for many manufacturers to find employees. But it is also about creating opportunities for young people in the city Harley calls home, said Tchernavia Rocker, Harley’s vice president of human resources.
“We love the idea that we can do something that matters. And these students represent what all of us hope and dream — that every young person gets to have an opportunity,” Rocker said.
She said the four students, most of whom work to help support themselves and their families, were selected for their “grit, energy and desire.”
“They’re really inspiring in their own rights,” she said. “They have the same challenges that so many of our children in Milwaukee have.
“Yet they’re here. They’ve persevered through a rigorous program — when it would have been easier to step aside because they have family commitments, they have other commitments. They’re here because they deserve to be.”
The Harley initiative is one of a number of on-the-job training programs available to students in MPS, which has nearly doubled its apprenticeship program in recent years. Last year, 80 students took part, and the district hopes to have at least 100 in 2018-’19, said Terri Salzer, who coordinates the program.
If the Harley program is successful, the company said it may expand it to plants in Tomahawk and York, Pa.
“We believe this is a model, not just for Harley-Davidson. It’s a model for this city. It’s a model for this state, and we believe it’s a model for this country,” Rocker said.
Sanchez said the program was highly competitive and acknowledged the support students received throughout.
“It just makes us proud to know we were the first four that were selected,”
Asked what he learned about himself, he said, “that I’m persistent.”
“The main lessons were persistence and responsibility.”
The students signed their agreements and donned their Harley hats amid cheers from family members and supporters, including MPS Superintendent Keith Posley and MATC President Vicki Martin.
Parents and siblings were called to the dais as each student’s name was called. And, in a particularly poignant gesture, Posley and Martin leaped to the stage to stand with a student whose family could not be there.
Sherice Flowers, whose son Jamaris earned one of the coveted spots, sat with her father at one of the front tables on Wednesday waiting for the ceremony to begin.
In some ways, they said, Jamaris is carrying on a family tradition working for Harley. One of his uncles worked there, and his granddad, Garvin, made Harley seats for Milsco Manufacturing Co. before retiring.
“I’m very excited,” she said, about the doors that were opening for her son and his classmates.
“I’m just so glad that MATC and Tech and Harley have come together to give these kids this opportunity.”