Machine Operator Apprenticeship opens Doors for Four Magic Valley Students

Program leads to full-time jobs with livable wages

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.

Sabastian Juarez at work at High Desert Milk in Burley. Photo courtesy High Desert Milk.

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

“Sabastian, he’s phenomenal,” said Tory Bailey, human resources manager at High Desert Milk and classroom instructor for the machine operator apprenticeship. “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  from scratch at the request of local manufacturing companies like McCain Foods, High Desert Milk and Fabri-Kal.

Juarez started the program as a senior in high school. Working toward a solid-paying job close to home sounded like a good opportunity. But it was demanding – he had to get up early to attend educational classroom training from 6:30 to 7:20 a.m., grab 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 Monday, Nov. 15, declaring November Idaho Apprenticeship Month, highlighting the benefits of Idaho’s robust and growing apprenticeship programs. The event coincided with National Apprenticeship Week Nov. 15-21.

“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, which is why U.S. Department of Labor Registered Apprenticeship programs are a great opportunity for students to go through the training and land a solid, good-paying job right out of high school.

Idaho businesses throughout the state are also having a hard time filling vacant positions, as evidenced by “Help Wanted” and “Now Hiring” signs posted statewide. The department and several partners – including the Idaho Division of Career and Technical Education, Idaho Business for Education, the Idaho Workers Opportunity Network and the Workforce Development Council – are working together with many other organizations to increase apprenticeships as a way of developing a skilled workforce.

Idaho businesses currently offer 381 apprenticeship programs for 102 occupations. More than 1,700 active apprentices are enrolled in classroom and on-the-job training, with 215 program sponsors and 171 additional employers serving as apprenticeship sponsors. The department has funding to support the costs associated with education training, and the employers pay the students a competitive training wage while they’re learning on the job.

Extensive classroom and on-the-job training help apprentices “hit the ground running” 

“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.

Tanner Pratt working at McCain Foods. Photo credit – McCain Foods

Recent graduate Tanner Pratt is working 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 its 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.

In the greater Magic Valley area, Bailey sees much more potential with manufacturing or machine-operator apprenticeships for 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. He has his own place to live and 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.”

For more information about Idaho’s apprenticeship programs and how to apply, visit ApprenticeshipIdaho.gov.

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