MANKATO, Minn. — At MTU Onsite Energy, East High School senior Ethan Dempster is mounting control panels, installing radiators and trying almost every other job on the assembly line.

His favorite job is testing the generators after they are assembled.

"You get to see everything come together," he told The Free Press .

Dempster is earning both a paycheck and school credit while he works at the Mankato manufacturing company.

He's one of a dozen participants in the Mankato Area Public Schools Youth Employment Acceleration Program.

School district officials and business partners recently promoted the manufacturing apprenticeship program to business supporters from across the state. They presented at the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce Executives annual conference in Mankato.

"Our goal is to try to get students in the door and teach them the business skills that they'll need for tomorrow, teach them things they might not be learning in school, and taking and applying what they are learning in school," MTU Onsite Energy Senior Manager Krista Ahlers told conference attendees.

The apprenticeship program started four years ago, propelled by the leaders of three manufacturing businesses looking for innovative ways to attract young people to manufacturing careers.

In addition to MTU Onsite Energy, EI Microcircuits and Kato Cable also offer apprenticeship opportunities.

Students participants at East and West high schools work at least 450 hours a year their junior and senior years at one of the companies. They work a few hours each school day in lieu of attending elective classes and can work up to full time in the summer.

Prospective participants must complete a prerequisite manufacturing or engineering class or two as underclassmen.

"They are getting hands-on skills that apply the classroom learning that they had," said Kim Mueller, the school district's career and college readiness coordinator.

The apprentices get a variety of work experiences in the companies, and students who already have or discover an area of particular interest often are given extra opportunities in that area.

A company mentor and the school district's work experiences coordinator meet regularly with the apprentices to discuss job skills and career planning.

The businesses each design a final project or skills challenge requiring their apprentices to demonstrate what they've learned before they graduate. They can earn a youth apprentice certificate from the Minnesota Department of Education.

Several of the apprentices have received job offers from the company after graduation.

Dempster said he appreciates a program that allows him to explore alternate paths for his future.

"A lot of people assume you have to go to college, but it's not for everyone," he said.

The senior said he hasn't decided what he wants to do once he graduates, but the apprenticeship is helping him narrow his selection. Staying at MTU Onsite Energy or pursing a degree in engineering is on his short list.

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