National Center on Secondary Education and Transition
In Their Own Words: Employer Perspectives on Youth with Disabilities in
Manufacturing & Production Technician Youth Apprentices:
Generac Portable Products Corporation
by Bob Hurd
Generac Portable Products Corporation, in Jefferson, WI, designs and
produces portable generators and pressure washers. Since 1996, Generac
has offered its manufacturing facility as a work site and classroom for
youth apprentices. The Youth Apprenticeship (YA) program is operated under
guidelines established by Wisconsin Governor’s Work-Based Learning
Board. Generac partners with the Jefferson County Consortium and the Watertown
Unified School District to provide a unique and authentic learning environment
for youth at-risk, including students with disabilities. Generac participates
in this partnership as a way to build a qualified manufacturing workforce
with a reinforced work ethic, to reduce the turnover of entry-level employees,
and to attract employees to this rural area.
Using a state- and industry-approved manufacturing production curriculum,
Generac has implemented a competency-driven YA program oriented toward
manufacturing production and assembly. This one-year program provides
opportunities for students with and without disabilities to participate
in work-based learning experiences by integrating rigorous technical coursework
with applied, hands-on activities related to manufacturing processes.
Apprentices are rotated among about half of the plant’s 14 departments.
These work station rotations focus on skills such as blueprint reading,
interpreting work instructions, using specific and common tools, welding,
engineering, research and development, and tool repair. Apprentices spend
approximately 30 hours in work and 6 hours in an academic/training program
per week. An on-site instructor trained in special needs education provides
an integrated English, science, math, and social studies curriculum. Generac
pays the apprentices for a 40-hour work week, including workers’
compensation. Apprentices also make visits to other work sites and are
exposed to international suppliers who visit the workplace.
Committed to Serving All Youth
Generac hopes to assist all youth in making responsible transitions to
the world of work and other adult roles. The Generac YA program serves
youth at-risk for dropping out of high school due to academic or behavioral
difficulties. While students with disabilities are not singled out for
this program, many of the participants have had learning or behavioral
disabilities. Generac is made aware of a student’s disability prior
to their starting work. Work and classroom accommodations are planned
between the YA teacher and the employer prior to student employment. The
YA program is managed by a job development firm, Opportunities, Inc.,
that provides counseling, home and site visits, and support services when
This YA program supports those students who learn best from “hands-on”
and authentic work experiences. These are not students who can sit in
a traditional classroom all day and learn. The program is competency-driven
and is presented in an understandable context that combines the learning
of specialized and general skills. Apprentices do not attend classes at
their local high school during the apprenticeship, but rather, spend their
day at the workplace. Academic instruction is provided at the work site
by a special education teacher.
Generac takes a preventative approach to skill development, trying to
catch the students before they experience job failure or develop poor
job skills and behaviors. Adult co-workers and supervisors have high expectations
of the apprentices for quality work and appropriate work behavior (i.e.,
attendance). Consequences for not meeting these expectations are similar
to those set up for the adult workers. Apprentices are viewed as part
of a team, and the ability to work as an effective team member is emphasized
throughout the program. To successfully support youth at the work site,
plant workers and work-site mentors must communicate these high expectations
by developing interpersonal relationships with young workers and learning
to appropriately reward and motivate them in the workplace.
Over the years, we have learned several lessons about the development
of a youth apprenticeship program. First, employers must understand that
students at-risk and/or with disabilities want to succeed and can be very
good workers. In turn, many of these students are not typical and have
personal issues that need to be, at times, addressed by a trained professional.
Thus it is helpful to have an on-site special education teacher, who can
start slowly, with just a few students, to build on their successes. It
is critical to emphasize the real-life expectations aspect of learning
and working by treating the students as actual employees. It is also important
to remember that we are not trying to change the world; we are trying
to change the lives of a few kids a year. Generac has found that keeping
the YA program to one year in duration helps to maintain the apprentices’
interest and motivation.
Secondly, it is essential to have a leadership structure in place to
facilitate communication between all the stakeholders (employers, school
personnel, mentors, co-workers, students, and parents) from the program’s
start. It is a good idea to develop a handbook that outlines the company’s
and program’s policies (i.e., student labor laws) should questions
or concerns arise. This leadership structure can also serve to maintain
student enrollment year-to-year. At Generac, in-service trainings are
conducted so area teachers can visit the facilities to see how the program
works, even for their most challenging students.
For this type of work-based learning program to succeed, employers must
be committed long-term to both the students and the provision of resources
(i.e., location, salaries, personnel, time). Generac provides the needed
resources for program continuation, including use of the facility, student
wages and workers’ compensation, and 50% of the classroom instructor’s
salary. In particular, Generac has found it helpful to provide part of
the classroom instructors’ salary, because it gives us some leverage
in defining the program.
Generac measures the success of its YA program in many ways. Students
are returned to the community as high school graduates with the skills
and experience to get a meaningful job in the manufacturing industry,
and to be self-supporting. Apprentices receive a regular diploma, a Certificate
of Occupational Proficiency in Manufacturing Production, and advanced
credit standing in the University of Wisconsin System.
The apprentices have learned to act responsibly at work and in school
and to produce high quality work. Many have proven themselves as capable
individuals, having gained a significant amount of confidence and maturity.
For example, over time they are willing to initiate conversations with
their supervisors about complaints, suggestions, and work in general.
The apprentices also have a positive effect on their adult co-workers.
Generac employees take pride in the YA program and are glad to advise
Since 1996, Generac has graduated 34 apprentices (approximately six per
year). Many of these graduates are offered full-time positions at Generac
upon completion of the program. Some graduates have become mentors to
new apprentices. Several graduates have gone on to postsecondary education
in a related field. This community-based program is a creative solution
to serving the needs of students with disabilities who are failing to
succeed in the traditional school setting.
Bob Hurd is a Business Area Manager responsible for the Generac Manufacturing
Youth Apprenticeship Program. The program has been recognized regionally
and nationally for its design and effectiveness. Generac’s YA program
received a national award from the Council for Exceptional Children and
several commendations from the Governor of Wisconsin.
598K, 40 pages
Citation: Luecking, R., Ed. (2004).
Essential tools: In their own words: Employer perspectives on youth
with disabilities in the workplace. Minneapolis, MN: University of
Minnesota, Institute on Community Integration, National Center on Secondary
Education and Transition.
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This document was published by the National
Center on Secondary Education and Transition (NCSET). NCSET is supported
through a cooperative agreement #H326J000005 with the U.S. Department
of Education, Office of Special Education Programs. Opinions expressed
herein do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of the U.S. Department
of Education Programs, and no official endorsement should be inferred.
The University of Minnesota, the U.S. Department of Education, and the
National Center on Secondary Education and Transition are equal opportunity
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