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Machine operator apprenticeship opens doors for 4 Magic Valley students

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Apprenticeship

Sabastian Juarez at work at High Desert Milk in Burley.

BURLEY — Sabastian Juarez and three classmates — Tanner Pratt, Jonathon Lizardi and Andres Gutierrez — have taken control of their futures and are ready for full-time careers with solid livable wages.

The four high school students recently completed a multi-year registered apprenticeship for machine operators that included 150 hours of early-morning classroom work and 2,000 hours of on-the-job training, preparing them for a full-time career with a solid livable wage.

Juarez is 21 years old now, and he’s got a full-time job with High Desert Milk in Burley, making $25 an hour as an assistant shift supervisor.

“Sabastian, he’s phenomenal,” said Tory Bailey, the human resources manager at High Desert Milk and an classroom instructor for the machine operator apprenticeship program. “He can run anything in the plant. He’s very driven and a quick-learner.”

The Idaho Department of Labor spent five years building the Machine Operator Apprenticeship – School to Registered Apprenticeship Program (STRAP) from scratch at the request of local manufacturing companies like McCain Foods, High Desert Milk and Farbi-Kal in the Burley area.

Juarez started the program as a senior in high school. It sounded like a good opportunity to work toward a solid-paying job close to home, he thought. But it was demanding — he had to get up early to attend educational classroom training sessions from 6:30 to 7:20 a.m., grab some breakfast, and then dash to Burley High School for the day.

“It was rough in the beginning,” he said. “But I’m feeling pretty good about it now. The program really boosted my career and helped me out a lot. It’s also helping out our community.”

Gov. Brad Little issued a proclamation on Nov. 15 highlighting the benefits of Idaho’s robust and growing apprenticeship programs during National Apprenticeship Week.

“Apprenticeships offer a win-win for employees and employers,” Little said. “Employees get on-the-job training and classroom instruction specifically designed for the career they choose, along with opportunities to advance. Apprentices learn while they earn a certification, gain practical experience, start working immediately, and receive built-in mentoring and support.”

Forty-five percent of Idaho students do not go on to college after high school, so the U.S. Department of Labor Registered Apprenticeship programs can be a great opportunity for students to go through the training and land a solid good-paying job right out of high school.

Apprenticeship

Sabastian Juarez at work at High Desert Milk in Burley.

Many businesses in Idaho are having a hard time filling vacant positions right now, as evidenced by “help wanted” and “now hiring” signs posted everywhere statewide. The Idaho Department of Labor has been working to create more apprenticeship programs to provide a skilled workforce in a wide variety of occupations.

The department now has 381 apprenticeship programs in 102 occupations. There are more than 1,700 active apprentices going through the classroom and on-the-job training, with 215 program sponsors and 171 additional employer partners participating in the program. In general, the Department of Labor covers the cost of the education training, and the employers pay the students a competitive wage while they’re learning on the job.

The extensive classroom and on-the-job training programs ensures that apprentices are ready to “hit the ground running” in the workplace, officials said.

“These young men and women come right out of high school, and they’re much farther along than an adult who might want to apply for the same position,” Bailey says. “The apprentices come with so much knowledge after two years of learning and training.”

Robin Page, HR specialist for McCain Foods in Burley, agrees.

“With the labor market the way it is, it’s been a struggle to get enough skilled people to work here,” she said.

One of the recent graduates, Tanner Pratt, has been hired full-time following his apprenticeship with McCain Foods.

“During the on-the-job training, they learn what to expect and what is expected of them,” Page said. “In the classroom training, they learn how important these machines are to keep the plants running, and there’s a lot to learn about running the machinery, and there are a lot of safety protocols they learn about as well.

McCain Foods makes french fries (battered, non-battered, straight cut, spirals and crinkle cuts), hash browns (cubed and shredded) and tater tots at their Burley plant.

“We have four more apprentices working for us as juniors or seniors in high school, so we have more people in the pipeline that may come to work for us full-time when they’re finished. It’s been totally worth it for us to be involved in the program,” Page said.

Apprentices can choose to move on to college, if they wish, officials point out. Many of the employers will contribute to an employee’s college education.

In the greater Magic Valley area, Bailey sees much more potential with manufacturing or machine-operator apprenticeships with companies like Chobani, Clif Bar, and more.

“We’d love to see more companies stepping up to sponsor the program in the manufacturing sector,” he said.

Juarez is happy with his full-time job at High Desert Milk at the moment. He’s got his own place to live, and he’s got the cash flow to enjoy the things he wants in life.

“I’d recommend the program to anyone,” he says. “You have to work hard, but there’s a payoff in the end. You can go on to college if you want, or move up the chain of command, it’s your choice. I’m pretty happy with the way things are now for me.”

Go to the Idaho Department of Labor Apprenticeship Programs website for more information about IDOL apprenticeship programs and how to apply.

Steve Stuebner is a professional writer who writes about Idaho Department of Labor apprenticeship programs.

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