PILLAGER — Students at Pillager and Pequot Lakes high schools are getting a taste of real work through a new apprenticeship program.

The Building Trades Career Pathway Program, run by Rural Minnesota Concentrated Employment Program, offers funding for up to 10 students at the two schools to get hands-on job experience before graduation. It’s the brainchild of Amy Sjoblad, career adviser supervisor at Rural Minnesota CEP, who wanted to give high school students a leg up when the time comes to get a full-time job.

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“Apprenticeship is an opportunity for high school grads that a lot of high schoolers don’t think about,” Sjoblad said Tuesday, March 2, during a meeting at Pillager High School. “It’s an amazing opportunity. You earn while you learn, less student debt.”

Three students at Pillager are participating, with two working at Ridgeline Manufacturing and one at Pike’s Plumbing and Heating in Brainerd.

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Pillager High School Principal Jason Savage said programs like this highlight what education should be.

Ben Newman (left), operations manager at Ridgeline Manufacturing, talks Tuesday, March 2, with student worker Tyler Barrows, Ashley Miller of Rural Minnesota CEP and Jason Bernick of Bernick's about the company's affiliation with Pillager High School's new apprenticeship program, funded this year by The Bernick family Foundation. Theresa Bourke / Staff Writer
Ben Newman (left), operations manager at Ridgeline Manufacturing, talks Tuesday, March 2, with student worker Tyler Barrows, Ashley Miller of Rural Minnesota CEP and Jason Bernick of Bernick's about the company's affiliation with Pillager High School's new apprenticeship program, funded this year by The Bernick family Foundation. Theresa Bourke / Staff Writer

“When I look at education, I’ve always thought that the capstone of it should be some kind of a project, something that brings you closer to your career, closer to where you want to go, and this apprenticeship kind of fits that,” Savage said during a phone interview Thursday. “We have students that are leaving here and will have hours towards their career, towards their journeyman’s license as either a plumber or a welder. And to have that final step towards that, and know these kids are now leaving, and they have a career in their sights, that just feels really good as a principal.”

The five Pequot Lakes students are working at Advanced Plumbing and Heating in Pequot Lakes, as well as three Crosslake businesses — Miller Construction, Land’s End Development and North Country Plumbing and Heating.

Pequot Lakes Principal Aaron Nelson said he is extremely excited about the apprenticeship program, which he feels mirrors the College in Schools program already offered for college-bound students to earn credits before high school graduation.

“To me, this is a similar program for students that are interested in trades in that it gives them those opportunities while in high school that will accelerate their professional opportunities after high school,” Nelson said during a phone interview Friday.

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Sjoblad wrote a grant for the program to take place at the two schools with which she works — Pequot Lakes and Pillager. The Bernick Family Foundation, an extension of the Waite Park-based beverage company Bernick’s, stepped up to offer this year’s funding with a grant of $25,000. Bernick’s has a lakes area facility in Baxter.

Jason Bernick represented the foundation at Tuesday’s meeting, expressing how excited he was to be a part of this effort.

“The future of our community is the students that are part of these programs,” he said.

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The Bernick Family Foundation gives out $150,000 worth of community grants each year.

“To develop students to be able to work and integrate into the workforce is an important piece for us,” Bernick said. “Stronger communities are very supportive, not just for us as an employer, but for us to live in, so it’s a win-win-win all around when we can help kids out to be successful in life.”

Representatives from Rural Minnesota Concentrated Employment Program accept a check from The Bernick Family Foundation Tuesday, March 2, for a new apprenticeship program benefitting high school students in Pillager and Pequot Lakes. Pictured are Pillager High School Principal Jason Savage (left); David Stumpf, youth career adviser with Rural Minnesota CEP; Ben Newman, operations manager at Ridgeline Manufacturing; Pillager Superintendent Mike Malmberg; Jason Bernick of Bernick's; Amy Sjoblad, career adviser supervisor at Rural Minnesota CEP; Ann Hutchinson, Pillager High School teacher; and Ashley Miller of Rural Minnesota CEP. Theresa Bourke / Brainerd Dispatch
Representatives from Rural Minnesota Concentrated Employment Program accept a check from The Bernick Family Foundation Tuesday, March 2, for a new apprenticeship program benefitting high school students in Pillager and Pequot Lakes. Pictured are Pillager High School Principal Jason Savage (left); David Stumpf, youth career adviser with Rural Minnesota CEP; Ben Newman, operations manager at Ridgeline Manufacturing; Pillager Superintendent Mike Malmberg; Jason Bernick of Bernick's; Amy Sjoblad, career adviser supervisor at Rural Minnesota CEP; Ann Hutchinson, Pillager High School teacher; and Ashley Miller of Rural Minnesota CEP. Theresa Bourke / Brainerd Dispatch

It’s certainly a win for Pillager senior Tyler Burrows, who is participating in the apprenticeship program and working at Ridgeline Manufacturing in Pillager. Burrows said he enjoys hands-on work and hopes he may be able to get a full-time job with the company after graduation. And even if decides to work somewhere else, he said it is nice to be getting some experience ahead of time.

The program is also a win for Ben Newman, operations manager at Ridgeline.

“We just liked the idea of getting some kids that we probably would never have had the opportunity to meet,” Newman said.

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Ridgeline makes aluminum recreational products like docks, boat lifts, trailers and fish houses and is a great place, Newman said, for students who are interested in trades like welding and industrial manufacturing.

Participating in the apprenticeship program is also a good way to be involved in the community.

“We always kind of want to be involved wherever we’re building this stuff because there are still people yet today in Pillager, Minn., that don’t know we are even back where we’re building the stuff,” Newman said, noting it is as much about getting to know the kids as it is about getting the community to know Ridgeline, which has been in Pillager since 2007.

And with many businesses looking for employees right now, Savage said the apprenticeship program is a great way to get kids interested and give them the necessary skills to jump right into the job after graduation.

Nelson is excited about the growing community partnerships coming out of the program, as working with local employers is always a goal at Pequot Lakes High School.

“We have got way more enthusiasm for this program than we’ve ever had before because of the trades focus with it. And for us, that is a positive,” he said, noting many businesses are asking what they can do to help.

While Pillager has done work-study and apprenticeship programs in the past, Savage said this initiative formalizes those efforts, as there are classes tied to the program as well.

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Student participants take an online course to learn about work readiness and how to find and apply for apprenticeships after high school. They will also earn Occupational Safety and Health Administration 10 industry-recognized certification, meaning they completed a 10-hour course covering general safety and health hazards for entry-level workers.

And these students will pass their knowledge onto future generations by returning to the school after graduation to talk with other high schoolers about their experience.

Sjoblad hopes to continue and expand the program in the future, but it will depend on funding sources. She plans to keep writing grants so high school students can continue to get that work experience.

“We can’t always teach those real employability skills right here in the school,” Sjoblad said. “... And that internship, or work experience, is really coupled with employability skills. So we’re really trying to hone in and teach our students about how to operate in the work world. It doesn’t always mirror what they’re doing here in school, so that’s a big focus.”



THERESA BOURKE may be reached at theresa.bourke@brainerddispatch.com or 218-855-5860. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/DispatchTheresa.