Work-Based Learning Bolsters Business, Student Success

As the labor shortage in Montana’s rural communities makes it hard for businesses to find skilled workers, towns across the state are feeling the economic pinch. It turns out the answer could solve more than one challenge.

There’s another trend creeping into the conversations of parents over coffee, guidance counselors and teachers in classrooms, and young adults amongst themselves. Young people are graduating from high school without a firm career path. And, more and more of them are leaving college, some before they earn their degree, with tens of thousands of dollars of debt.

Livingston is turning these two needs into an opportunity to expose local high school students to a range of career choices while giving the business community a chance to train future employees. The Livingston School District, the Montana Department of Labor & Industry, MSU Park County Extension, and AMB West, a local community foundation, joined together to start a Work-Based Learning Program at Park High School. It’s a hodgepodge bunch, but each group has a serious stake in making the program work.

Park High’s Work-Based Learning Pilot Program

In 2017, AMB West — which focuses on early childhood development, youth empowerment and development, community wellness, and youth suicide prevention — granted the program $20,000 per year for up to four years.

“We want to make sure that [students are] in a career that they love,” said Park County Extension Agent Mary Anne Keyes.

Keyes, who helped write the grant request, now works directly with Park High students and guidance counselors on career exploration. Her colleague Katie Weaver, the Economic and Community Development Agent at Park County Extension, connects the students to training opportunities in the local business community. Together — alongside the other partner groups — they work to ensure that Park High students have exposure to and experience with different careers before leaving high school.

“Our job is to help these kids reach their full potential and their capacity and their passions,” said Keyes. “They can make those choices. And if it’s college, that’s fantastic. If it’s trade school (post-secondary credential), that’s fantastic. If it’s going into the workforce right away, that’s fantastic.”

Still relatively new, the program is already showing signs of success.

Adam Lewis: Electrician in Training

Adam Lewis is a senior at Park High and is an apprentice under Arrowhead Electric

Born and raised in Livingston, Adam Lewis was always mechanically inclined. He held the typical jobs for young Montanans, including cleaning houses and working on a ranch. Two years ago, a family friend connected him with Arrowhead Electric, and that sparked real career possibilities. Now, at 18 years old, he can wire an entire house.

“I’ve loved every minute of it,” says Lewis, who explains that as soon as he was old enough, he was, “in.”

Like any other apprentice in the Montana Registered Apprenticeship Program, Lewis earns money while training under a business sponsor. He also takes courses at MSU Northern to become a journeyman electrician. However, unlike most other apprentices, Lewis is still in high school. In addition to his electrical work, he takes his high school classes and is set to graduate from Park High this spring. Then he will dedicate his full attention to completing his apprenticeship. If all goes smoothly, by the time he reaches his early 20s, Lewis will be a full-blown electrician with a journeyman license, job security, a good salary, and zero college debt.

Lewis equips his truck with many of the key tools for any electrician. He also has access to tools through his sponsors, Arrowhead Electric.

Lewis is a driven young man with a team of folks supporting him. The electricians at Arrowhead took him under their wing, showed him the ropes, and shared the essential tools. Park High arranged his schedule so he could take his high school classes in the morning, giving him the afternoon to either focus on his apprenticeship courses or work in the field with Arrowhead Electric. Additionally, his teachers at Park High are there to help him with any math or engineering questions he may have on his MSU Northern workload.

“Every step of the way, Park High was able to work with me,” said Lewis.

It’s clear that Lewis is excited about the path he chose. He gains new knowledge and skills every day and is regularly rising to meet the next challenge. He is also learning how to conduct himself in a professional setting, something that will prepare him well for future jobs.

“When you’re in the field, with trades specifically, you don’t just learn one trade.” explained Lewis. “You kind of have to learn a little bit about all the trades.”

After he graduates this spring, Lewis will continue with his apprenticeship program and look forward to endless possibilities. He can remain with Arrowhead Electric or he can one day form his own business. He can go work in another town or a nearby state — or even another country. Wherever he goes, he will take the skills he is learning today with him to help him succeed.

Other Work-Based Learning Options at Park High

Lewis, who went directly into an apprenticeship program at a young age, is a rare case. Not all 16-year-olds have a dream job in mind. Fortunately, the Work-Based Learning Program has other ways to expose Park High students to a range of career options.

As freshmen and sophomores, students start exploring potential career choices through guest speakers, tours, and special classes. Then, as juniors and seniors, they have the opportunity to job shadow, intern at a local company, start a pre-apprenticeship program, or join a full apprenticeship program.

One student wanted to be an accountant — until she completed an accounting internship and realized it was not for her. Luckily, she participated in a rotational internship that semester, which featured three mini-internships, including one that she found much more appealing.

Livingston, Montana
Photo by Sarah Mussetter

Another Park High graduate earned his Commercial Drivers License last year, after training with a towing company through the Work-Based Learning Program. He still works at that towing company and he now sponsors his own Park High intern. He not only shows his intern the ropes, but also encourages him to get good grades and finish high school so he can get his CDL and land a good-paying job.

Businesses throughout the town have come to appreciate Park High students as enthusiastic, eager-to-learn potential hires who, with the right training, can be a valuable asset to their company. Last year, roughly 50 businesses sponsored interns; this year, word has spread and more are calling Park High in search of interns.

“It’s cool to have businesses see how invested these kids can get and for kids to see that they have a say in their future,” said Sarah Mussetter, a teacher at Park High who facilitates the classroom portion of the Work-Based Learning Program.

What’s next?

Livingston didn’t create the program from scratch.

“Other states have been doing work-based learning for quite awhile,” said Meagan Lannan, Department of Labor & Industry. “So there’s quite a lot out there.”

Livingston is, however, the first town in Montana to implement and integrate a work-based learning program into their school district. Hopefully, the program continues to strengthen the connections between the school and the local businesses, and, as it grows, other communities throughout the state begin to adapt this model.

Lannan, who grew up in Thompson Falls, helped write the initial grant application and now works to facilitate work-based learning programs like this one in other Montana communities. Spreading this approach to other communities was always part of the plan.

The future of Livingston’s program, and perhaps other work-based programs throughout the state, lies in the strong hands of people who care deeply about their communities and want to see their kids have a strong future.

“It’s been a wild ride and we can see the impact,” said Lannan.

-Amanda Garant

Got something to say to Prairie Populist? Send news tips, story ideas and comments to [email protected]. If you have something to submit, or an idea for a story you’d like to write for us, check out our Submission Guidelines here.

Feature photo by Sarah Mussetter, Park High teacher.