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As one of the oldest employers in Milwaukee, Komatsu Mining Corp. has earned its reputation as a leading manufacturer with the foresight to expand capabilities and quickly adapt to shifting global demands. But like so many industrial companies, the coming retirement crisis and lack of skilled talent in the pipeline threatened its future success.

Komatsu knew it had to act — and fast.

“We realized there was going to be about 50-60 people retiring over the next five years,” says Dale Porter, a senior human resources generalist at Komatsu. “We decided that we had to do something. We decided to partner with GPSEd.”

GPS Education Partners is a work-based learning intermediary who provides education services that help close the skills gap. The Waukesha-based nonprofit organization connects employers seeking talent with students exploring technical careers, providing them with on-the-job training and wage-earning opportunities through its immersive manufacturing youth apprenticeship program.

“Over the last few years, we’ve really tried to make this not about finding a job, but making this about a career-oriented activity,” explains Andy Hepburn, GPSEd chief innovation officer. “How do we connect the learning that happens in the classroom to the types of opportunities that are available with an employer? We provide a rich, academic experience that brings value to that model that helps students find that success pathway sooner.”

Hepburn says students who participate in the youth apprenticeship program are often struggling to stay engaged in traditional learning environments. The youth apprenticeship program not only gives students a chance to work alongside technical professionals in the real world, but also accelerates their soft skills, such as communication, timeliness, and team collaboration, improving their employability prospects following graduation.

“Overall, that experience combined with the learning components that we offer and the impact that they get by ‘trying on a career’ can have a very transformational effect for them,” he adds.

The program also provides exposure to the possibilities of technical careers, which are too often overshadowed by schools’ focus on obtaining four-year degrees.

That was the case for Joe Graef, who entered the GPSEd youth apprenticeship program in 2001 when he was a junior in high school. While he was unsure of his future career path at the time, he demonstrated an early interest in manufacturing. As a GPSEd apprentice, he had the opportunity to try his hand at various trades and received in-house training at Generac Power Systems in machining and gearing. Today, Graf is a production supervisor at Komatsu and serves as a GPSEd mentor through the organizations’ work-based learning partnership, sharing his path to success with the next generation workforce.

“My experience with GPSEd prepared me for a real-world vision inside the workforce,” Graef says. “Being a mentor today inside our facility, I can get inside the minds of students because I know what they are going through. We can be there for them so we can help them grow as individuals and great employees.”

John Koetz, president of Surface Mining at Komatsu, says the company’s older employees were initially hesitant about training young workers, but the feelings were quickly replaced with feelings of purpose and pride.

“For our employees who get to be a part of the experience, it’s really [the feeling] of a proud parent,” Koetz says of watching students progress through the program, graduate and move into life-sustaining technical careers. “And for us, it’s exciting because now we have a part of our next-generation workforce onboard and helping us grow our business for the future.”

“As a result of the successes with those first [students], we’re doubling the number we’re going to do with GPSEd in the next year,” says Koetz, adding the company has increased its number of apprentices from two to four students each year.

See more of Komatsu’s story of how working with Milwaukee Public Schools and GPSEd has helped them build the next-generation workforce by watching this video:

Curious to see if work-based learning is an option for your company? Download our Work-based Learning Guide or contact us today.

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