On a cold, windy Tuesday morning, about 17 Bradley Tech High School students got off a bus at Harley-Davidson’s engine factory in Menomonee Falls.
As they gathered in the employee entrance, where an overhead sign says “The Journey Begins Here,” they were issued safety gear and name tags.
It was an important moment, not only for the students seeking a youth apprenticeship in the skilled trades at Harley, but also for the company that needs to attract young talent as older workers retire.
Those days are coming, “and there’s no way around it,” said Tchernavia Rocker, Harley’s vice president of human resources.
It’s also reflective of what’s going on across the United States — and, in fact, globally.
No jobs are harder to fill than the likes of machinists, electricians, plumbers and others in the trades, according to the Milwaukee-based global staffing and recruitment company, ManpowerGroup.
The “skills gap” as it is called, is all too familiar for many manufacturers, and even high-profile companies like Harley haven’t been exempt.
“Unless something changes drastically, this problem is not going away,” said Tori Termaat, Harley’s director of talent.
The 17 students are competing for six openings in Harley’s youth apprenticeship in tool-and-die making, machine repair/maintenance and electrical maintenance.
This is a new program for Milwaukee-based Harley.
The company says if the experiment goes well, it may expand the program to its plants in Tomahawk, and York, Pa.
The program is meant to be a gateway into an adult apprenticeship in the skilled trades at Harley-Davidson, the world’s largest manufacturer of heavyweight motorcycles.
Business reporter Rick Barrett on the problems facing manufacturers like Harley-Davidson and the program that they hope will close the “skills gap.”
The company’s Menomonee Falls plant, on Pilgrim Road, employs 1,000 people. Over the next couple of months, the students will job shadow employees at that plant, learning about those careers.
While they’re on the shop floor, every other Tuesday, they might get to watch someone fix a robot or troubleshoot an assembly line problem.
They might attend a not-so-exciting staff meeting, too, because that’s part of the job.
In May, it all comes together when the students make individual presentations to Harley’s leadership about why they want to be in the company’s first youth apprenticeship program.
They will be interviewed, and two students will be chosen for each of the three trades, Termaat said.
The selections will take place by the end of May, and the youth apprenticeships would begin this fall.
Bradley Tech, including previous iterations of the school, has a history in Milwaukee going back to the early 1900s — nearly as long as 115-year-old Harley-Davidson.
The 17 students have already shown an interest in the trades, not surprising because they are in their junior or senior year at a technical skills high school.
“Let’s be frank. Not everybody’s going on to a four-year college. But you can earn a nice living in the trades,” said Addo Williams, a Bradley Tech assistant teacher and a licensed building contractor.
“We have to make these kids understand that this could be a life-changing thing for them,” Williams said.
Job losses possible in any career
While job prospects in the skilled trades are good, and the careers can be lucrative, scores of workers in manufacturing have gone through layoffs and plant closings.
In January, Harley announced it was closing its Kansas City, Mo., factory that employs 800 people.
The closing comes as the company’s U.S. sales have fallen for several years and have been only partially offset by growth overseas.
Harley has cut other manufacturing jobs over the years, too.
But job losses can happen in any career, Williams said, and he’s willing to have those conversations with the students.
“You don’t want to sugarcoat life experiences that we deal with every day. The worst thing you could do would be to lie to these kids,” he said.
The skilled-trades employees at Harley’s Kansas City plant have been recruited by other companies in that area, although union officials say they’re still fighting to keep the plant open.
Jobs in the motorcycle factories require advanced technical skills and continuous education.
The work is very challenging, and every day is different, said Brandon Mortenson, a journeyman in machine maintenance at the Menomonee Falls plant, and a member of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers union.
Mortenson has been in the skilled trades for 16 years, since he graduated from Muskego High School, and says he’s looking forward to working with the Bradley Tech students.
“Somebody had to put the training into me, to teach me the skills I have. And as a journeyman, I think it’s part of my responsibility to help train the next generation of the workforce,” Mortenson said.
It takes about four years to become a journeyman in his trade, Mortenson said, and he believes that youth apprenticeships are a good start toward bridging the skills gap.
“As journeymen in a union shop, we take pride in making sure the apprentices come out with the best possible education,” he said.
Harley’s new program is part of the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development’s youth apprenticeship system.
Other companies, such as We Energies, have youth apprenticeships aimed at giving students a head start on a regular apprenticeship after high school.
Bradley Tech program
Over the years, Harley-Davidson has donated a large amount of shop equipment to Bradley Tech, which formally is called Lynde and Harry Bradley Technology & Trade School.
The company has also provided mentors and other assistance to the school and other youth programs.
Bradley Tech students can take classes that give them credits at Milwaukee Area Technical College.
“The idea is for them to get off to a much faster start after high school,” said Scott Sommer, a Bradley Tech instructor and Milwaukee Public Schools industry liaison.
Assuming the selected students do well in youth apprenticeships, Harley says, they will move on to apprenticeships and jobs at the company that lead to journeyman status.
“I believe that our retention rate will be just fine,” Rocker said. “We are teaching them real-life skills they need. Even if they don’t stay here, we are helping them in their future.
“I think that’s what success looks like,” she said.
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