High School Apprenticeship Program Helps Change Lives

Program set to expand to Louisiana, Georgia and North Dakota

Abigail Parsons stands with her welding helmet.
Abigail Parsons

For Abigail Parsons becoming a high school welding apprentice at John Deere Davenport Works was a life-changing experience. It not only inspired her to finish high school but led to a career that provided her the stability she’d always wanted.

“Without the welding program, I probably would have dropped out of school,” Parsons said. “I felt like the program helped provide me with the necessary tools needed for becoming an adult. I bought a car. I own a house.”

In recent years many high school students in communities with a John Deere facility, have found their future career through an apprenticeship program that introduces them to skilled trades.

It’s a program that was born five years ago out of a need to find more skilled workers.

“It was clear, if we didn’t do anything different, we were not going to have enough people to do the type of work that needed to get done,” said David Ottavianelli, director for workforce and community growth.

I felt like the program helped provide me with the necessary tools needed for becoming an adult. I bought a car. I own a house.

Abigail Parsons

A vision of success

The apprenticeship program was created to help grow a student candidate pipeline, targeting young adults who were unaware a need — and an opportunity — sat in their home communities.

“There are studies that show a good portion of the population gets their high school diploma but has no plans for higher education,” Ottavianelli said. “It’s about one-third of those aged 25-64. The question is how do we identify and engage that group earlier in life?”

Career conversations start as soon as seventh and eighth grade, he said. “It’s about providing them with a vision of success,” Ottavianelli added. And that vision is equally shared by the school, the student, and their parents.

John Deere has community outreach teams in locations where we have factories with Waterloo and Dubuque, Iowa, and the Quad Cities (which includes Davenport, Iowa, and Moline, Illinois), Ottavianelli said.

“This is attractive to the schools because it provides an option for students who don’t plan on going to college and it gives them a path to a career,” he said.

In early 2019, a model program was established in the Pella (Iowa) School District. By May of that year, nine high school juniors from the Davenport and North Scott (Eldridge, Iowa) districts formed the first class.

This is attractive to the schools because it provides an option for students who don’t plan on going to college and it gives them a path to a career,

David Ottavianelli

“It’s important to know this isn’t a Deere program. The schools are the sponsors,” Ottavianelli said. “They know the candidates, they know the student body, they own the connection to the local businesses. This allows the schools to engage with multiple business partners and with more opportunities, more students get a chance. Everybody wins.”

Success built on success

The schools register the program through the U.S. Department of Labor. From 2019-2021 a total of 60 students started in the program with 42 receiving full-time employment. Abigail Parsons was one of those first students.

A Davenport Central High School student, Parsons started in the vocational program because trade work was in her background, having come from a family of roofers and carpenters.

“From the time I could walk, I was out working with all the guys,” she said.

By her senior year, she was splitting her school day between classes and welding at Deere. A 2021 graduate, Parsons has worked as a Deere employee for over two years, crediting the apprenticeship program with giving her the beginnings of a life she wasn’t sure was possible.

Parsons said her friends now look to her for advice because of her experiences.

“The apprenticeship program can change lives regardless of if you want to actually do that work,” she said. “If you're interested in those trades this program gives you an opportunity. And that’s important. I appreciate having a stable household. That was something I really wanted when I grew up and I've given it to myself with this job.”

The future of the program

In 2022, the program had 50 students participating with May graduations on the horizon. And for 2023? Well, that starts soon.

“It begins May 10 in the Quad Cities, and our goal is 80-100 students for the year,” Ottavianelli said. “We’ve expanded similar programs to our factories in Louisiana, Georgia, and North Dakota and the more that we get into Deere the more we’re seeing a benefit beyond filling roles. Our current employees have shown tremendous engagement with the students.”

James Hotchkiss, a Davenport Works production employee serving as the factory’s community integration liaison, agrees.

“Some of these students are coming from some underserved areas of our community,” Hotchkiss said. “These are students who may never have finished school and now they’re out on our shop floor. Our employees maybe see a bit of themselves in these students or maybe they see their child in them. Either way, they can help can mentor a student in learning a trade while, maybe, also providing an opportunity to just grow by giving advice. But most importantly, we’re also seeing the future and that’s pretty cool.”