This past summer, faculty from Iowa State University’s Department of English helped high school apprentices in welding and machinery at John Deere sharpen their writing and speaking skills through a five-week, in-person communications training course called the High School Registered Apprenticeship Program (HRAP).
This was a continuation of the collaboration between Iowa State and the world’s largest farm machinery manufacturer. It is the third year of the program and this past summer it expanded to locations in Ankeny and Des Moines. The program kicked off in 2021 at John Deere’s facilities in Davenport and East Moline, Illinois, and expanded in the summer of 2022 to include Waterloo.
During two-hour sessions, twice a week in July and August, students focused on workplace communication, which is a major component of worker safety and performance. They created a short persuasive pitch about John Deere’s HRAP program and designed a formal presentation for John Deere’s leadership team about the program’s benefits.
Brandon Sams, associate professor, and Erin Frink-Durben, lecturer, were the program’s instructors this summer. It was Sams’ first teaching experience with HRAP and Frink-Durben’s second.
“I was so impressed with John Deere – they gave me everything I needed to be successful,” Sams said. “They encouraged the apprentices about the communications course and helped shape a culture of encouragement and excellence.
“I am a former high school English teacher and getting to teach rising juniors and seniors again was a great thrill for me,” he said. “The apprentices came to class everyday ready to work and eager to support each other with the pitch and presentation assignments.”
For Frink, the teaching was rewarding. “I enjoyed working with HRAP because I could interact with a group of students I don’t normally work with, and I learned just as much from them and their daily jobs as they did with my teaching,” she said.
Although many students indicated they weren’t “good at school,” they soon realized the program was helping them become better speakers and writers, and offered them a community of support and encouragement.
Near the end of the course, Shaun Yandas and Jose Reyes, apprentices at Davenport Works, created an Iowa State University memento out of hand-cut steel and presented it to Sams during their last class together. Sams was humbled by their thoughtfulness and their labor. During final presentations, Yandas and Reyes highlighted the Iowa State keepsake as one of their most memorable experiences of the summer.
“I’ll never forget teaching the welding apprentices and I hope I get a chance to again,” Sams said.
From apprentice to employee
As a corporate partner in HRAP since 2019, Deere has hosted apprentices in welding, CNC machining, and IT software engineering. Apprentices work 35 hours per week at one of John Deere’s facilities during the summer between their junior and senior year of high school and drop to half-time while in school.
Apprentices may be offered full-time jobs once they turn 18, earn their high school diploma or GED, and meet other criteria.
Leaders from John Deere and Iowa State agree that they want to expand training opportunities to more locations in the future.
“The transformation of the students has been incredible to see during the training,” said David Ottavianelli, John Deere’s director of Workforce and Community Development. “As John Deere and local high schools continue to grow apprentice and other skills-building programs, our goal is to have additional Iowa State instructors engaged to assist future students in their communication skills.”
Volker Hegelheimer, chair of the English department, shared his support and commended the faculty who led the effort:
“The department’s dedication to providing critical communication skills combined with the expertise and enthusiasm of our innovative instructors, like Brandon Sams and Erin Frink-Durbin, has played a major role in the success of the department’s partnership with John Deere.”
Hegelheimer added that the partnership with John Deere is part of the department’s “on-going effort to align classroom instruction with essential workplace needs” and a model for future collaborations with industry leaders.