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National Center on Secondary Education and Transition

In Their Own Words: Employer Perspectives on Youth with Disabilities in the Workplace

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 necessary.

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.

Lessons Learned

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.

Measuring Success

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 students.

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.

Table of Contents

Cover Page


Publish or Perish: Macworld Magazine by Shelly Ginenthal

Reaching Out to Youth: Microsoft Corporation by Mylene Padolina

Boosting the High Tech Workforce: Kennedy Space Center, NASA by Cassandra Black

Finding Premium Volunteers: Port Discovery by Leah Burke

Investigating Human Resource Options: American Institute for Cancer Research by John McIlveen

Manufacturing & Production Technician Youth Apprentices: Generac Portable Products Corporation by Bob Hurd

Infrastructure for Success: Kemtah Group, Inc. by Keith Harris

Quality Products, Quality Employees: Medtronic Physio-Control by LaDrene Coyne

Searching for a Reliable Workforce: Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center by J. Erin Riehle

Keeping Stock of Personnel Needs: Safeway by Grace Louie

Brokering Achievement: Old Colony Insurance Service, Inc. by S. Brooks May, Jr.

Summary & Conclusion

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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.

Permission is granted to duplicate this publication in its entirety or portions thereof. Upon request, this publication will be made available in alternative formats. For additional copies of this publication, or to request an alternate format, please contact: Institute on Community Integration Publications Office, 109 Pattee Hall, 150 Pillsbury Drive SE, Minneapolis, MN 55455, (612) 624-4512, icipub@umn.edu.

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 employers and educators.