“Signing Day” has taken on a whole new meaning at Big Lake High School in Big Lake, Minnesota. Under the leadership of Principal Bob Dockendorf, high school juniors and seniors put pen to paper to announce where they will be starting an apprenticeship.
“Youth Apprentice Signing Day simulates the celebrations athletes enjoy when joining a college or professional team. We’ve created actual signing opportunities that bring businesses, students, staff, parents, and the community together to give apprenticeships some well-earned attention,” Principal Dockendorf said in an interview with American Experiment. “By participating in the signings, we see instant pride for industries we might not otherwise recognize in our surrounding communities.”
Youth Apprentice Signing Day is part of the high school’s Youth Apprenticeship Program. The program is coordinated with Wright Technical Center and provides career advancement opportunities to high school juniors and seniors. Students learn highly technical skills from a trained worksite mentor and are exposed to a wide variety of industries including manufacturing, healthcare, auto repair construction, and STEM fields.
Participants have worked in everything from airplane mechanics at Twin Cities Aviation to even mortuary science through job shadowing at Dingmann Family Funeral Homes.
“Our high schoolers experience professional environments that provide them with career pathways while they are still in high school,” continued Dockendorf. “Getting a four-year degree is one option, but when high schools solely focus on that it does a disservice to everything else available.”
Principal Dockendorf’s work to build a solid program for apprenticeships and other work-based opportunities has required great effort. It took time to get parents on board with a program that encouraged alternatives to baccalaureate degrees. Teachers and counselors needed to be educated and re-acclimated to data that shows the four-year college route is not in the best interest of all students.
Around 50 percent of Minnesota high school seniors start down the four-year college road, but 2015 data show Minnesota’s public four-year institutions have an average four-year graduation rate of only 38.5 percent.
“There’s this myth that it’s embarrassing if you don’t say you’re going to college for a four-year degree. At times it feels like the mission of Big Lake High School’s Youth Apprenticeship Program is a whisper in a hurricane. The data is showing us statistics on the number of four-year graduates in Minnesota, yet we are still pushing students to pursue this path even if it’s not a good fit.”
High school students are not always aware of post-secondary alternatives, so Big Lake High Schools has been intentional about partnering with colleges and universities that encourage young people to explore occupations that offer promising career paths without a high price tag.
St. Cloud Technical and Community College (SCTCC) hosted Big Lake’s high school students for its “Forecast Your Future” event. Students toured SCTCC’s programs and learned about career possibilities in business, IT, manufacturing technology, natural and health sciences, and transportation technology.
Big Lake also works with St. Cloud State, Southwest State, and the University of Minnesota.
“Relationships with higher education institutions are important. We are working to break down the silos that exist between high schools and colleges,” Dockendorf said. “If we are really going to build a solid apprenticeship program, we need a partnership with them, other schools, parents, and businesses.”
In September 2017, the school district hosted a Youth Apprenticeship Job Fair. Over 600 students attended along with at least 20 different businesses offering apprenticeship or job shadowing opportunities.
“We have the kids… You have the jobs! Why not provide an apprenticeship opportunity? You can legally hire students under 18 with this State Approved Youth Apprenticeship Program,” read the job fair flyer.
Applications from businesses to participate in the fall 2018 job fair are already flooding in.
“Employers are desperate for hard-working kids and educated kids. The job fair is a partnership opportunity to satisfy their industry needs while simultaneously offering career-focused opportunities to students,” Dockendorf explained. “We know there’s this population of hard-working kids who don’t know what’s out there and can’t bridge it. We are helping students find their true niche, a true career path where they can do what they love, without having to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to figure out they aren’t interested in something or it’s not a good fit for them.”