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It’s tough for a young person to take the long view. How might one experience relate to another twenty years down the line? Not many professionals are doing the work today that they expected to be doing at age sixteen. Could one class or employer really influence a career for life?

Early work-based learning

Witness the effects of one early work-based opportunity in the work and life of Joe Graef, a 2001 graduate of a manufacturing youth apprenticeship program now operated by Wisconsin-based nonprofit, GPS Education Partners (GPSEd). Today Joe is a Production Supervisor at Komatsu Mining and proof that work-based learning can turn educational experiences into sustainable careers.

“When I was in high school I didn’t know what career path I was going to take,”  Joe said. He had an interest in the manufacturing process from an early age. “Watching your work progress over a long period of time to become something essential and useful to the modern world and its infrastructure is a very satisfying feeling.”

Tool and die and machining jumped out as something that could be a potential career. “My experience with GPS Education Partners was a perfect opportunity for me to gain a real-world vision of what was out there in that field,” said Joe.

Joe’s early awareness and exposure to manufacturing gave him the opportunity to try his hand at various trade jobs. This eventually led him into a registered machining and gearing apprenticeship that was part of an in-house training program, which led to a career that lasted eight years.

Some students pursue college before they really know what they want to do. Through GPSEd, Joe realized there was more to education than a four-year degree.

Wanting to be more involved in the manufacturing process, Joe took steps to advance within Komatsu Mining to his current position. In his current role as production supervisor, Joe goes over production metrics, identifies any bottleneck that may impede work and makes sure his team has the resources they need.

In his job, he began seeing firsthand the effects of a widening skills gap created by worker retirement. He became part of the team of change-makers that would eventually partner with GPSEd to integrate a youth apprenticeship solution into their current workforce development plan. “We want to give students a path to follow to help them stay with our company and remain productive, skilled workers,” said Joe.

Mentorship and skills coaching

The story comes full circle: Komatsu Mining now serves as a business partner site for GPSEd students, and Joe acts as a mentor for students at the National Avenue facility in Milwaukee. He provides skills coaching daily to students on the job.  He offers feedback to make sure the youth are learning what they need to be.

“Being a mentor today inside our facility, I can get inside the minds of students because I am still a kid at heart and know what they are going through,” said Joe. “It’s interesting to see what I can do to help make their situation better.”

Joe has a passion for working with youth and helping them develop an important skill they didn’t know they could have, just like someone did with him almost two decades ago. “Anything in their personal life, we want to make sure they have what they need so we can help them grow as individuals and great employees.”

GPSEd helps students in more ways than one, Joe emphasized. “Their employability skills are key. Soft skills: their collaboration, their teamwork, being on time,  making them accountable, having them be respectful. We are here to mentor them in those skills and in life.”

Businesses + Educators = GPSEd

His vision is to be a part of a movement where businesses and educators work together so that all students have access to a work-based learning opportunity that prepares them for a meaningful career.

“We need to create better pathways for students in high school to thrive in whatever career they’re going into. I’m excited to grow this program to many facets of the company,” said Joe.

“We are one big team moving towards one goal. It has been a fantastic experience to interact with other departments. I love what they do and how we bring it all together to get things accomplished. I’ve also met some really cool people along the way.”

For more information on GPSEd, visit gpsed.org. To become a business partner, contact us here.

This article was written by Laura Derpinghaus at GPS Education Partners and sponsored by BizTimes.

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