It’s not a typical job for a high school student, but Madison, Wis.’s, fleet service apprentice program is not a typical entry-level job opportunity. It is a chance for students to broaden their skill set while deepening and diversifying the city’s talent pool.
Spearheaded by Fleet Service Superintendent Mahanth Joishy, who ran a similar program in New York City, he built the framework for the Madison program when he took over the department in 2017. He then partnered with the local school district in order to identify potential students who may be interested in earning some additional credit — not to mention a paycheck — while learning a new skill. The first high school apprentices began working with the department in 2018, and the program has been growing steadily ever since.
In order to attract students to the program, the Madison Fleet Services team partners with local high schools and technical colleges to create curriculum, loan out equipment for practice and make presentations throughout the year. They also encourage classes to tour their garage so students have the chance to talk to staff and ask questions directly before signing up for the program.
The department also seeks out appropriate mentors who want to work with the students and will give them the best experience while enrolled in the program. Not everyone is cut out to be a mentor, and Darkin said no employee should ever be forced to participate if he or she doesn’t want to.
“(We) set clear expectations from the beginning and hold (our) apprentices accountable,” she said. “We treat them as we would a regular technician, and we get to know the supports in place. If something comes up in an apprentice’s personal life that affects their work with you, its helpful to know resources you can direct them to.”
The students work 10-15 hours per week and receive $13.01 per hour in addition to school credit. Throughout their apprenticeship, students work with their technician mentor who helps them get 450 hours of hands-on experience maintaining a wide range of equipment, including police squad cars, ambulances, electric vehicles, lawn mowers, garbage trucks, sweepers and more, all under one roof. Darkin said students also get exposure to a variety of careers within the automotive field, such as maintenance, auto body repair, parts, welding and operations. By learning the tricks of the trade from those with real-life experience, they also obtain career guidance that cannot be learned in a traditional classroom.
“The employees who volunteer to work with the apprentices enjoy getting to know each student while helping them learn a variety of skills,” she said. “In addition, work hasn’t slowed down at all, and as apprentices gain more experience, they can eventually work independently on various jobs.”
Meeting a need
Darkin said the goal of the high school apprentice program is to develop local talent and to increase the diversity of the fleet service workforce. The fleet services’ team, like many other garages around the country, is facing a number of retirements in the next several years, and by creating apprentice programs, the department is able to invest in the community while attracting a new generation of diverse employees.
“Our workforce predominantly consists of white men, (but) in 2018, we hired our first ever female technician,” she said. “So far, half of our apprentices have been people of color and we have worked with one female student. All of these individuals gained valuable automotive experience and have a leg up over their peers if they follow this career path.”
Although the program has been on pause since late March due to the coronavirus pandemic, Joishy hopes that the program will get back on track as soon as it is safe to do so, and Darkin said she hopes more cities will consider creating similar programs so they can attract future talent to their own fleet services departments. She believes cities should invest in young people by paying them well for the work they do and working with the schools to ensure they are earning credit. “Above all, make sure that there is a path available that leads to full-time employment with you. In our case, we have created a second internship level that we can promote an apprentice if we want to keep working with them while they attend Madison College,” she said. “From there, we can hire them in a regular lower-level position once they earn their associate degree and eventually promote them to a full technician position when they are ready.”