Inspire Rhinelander Seeks to Connect Students to Careers in Local Workforce

Apr 1, 2021

Rhinelander High School students Ann DeMeyer and Isaac Freeman test a water filter in a science class in this photo from last school year.
Credit Ben Meyer/WXPR

Population projections show our area is rapidly aging.

In 20 years, about a third of the population in the Northwoods will be age 65 or older.

That promises to put even more strain on employers seeking people to fill jobs, and many of those employers are already struggling to find enough workers.

But despite those trends, a new program in the School District of Rhinelander might help fill the gap for employers and their future workers.

“It’s clear that there is a tremendous need for staff and skilled employees in almost all business areas, not only Rhinelander, but really everywhere,” said Rhinelander Superintendent Eric Burke.

A new initiative including Grow North, the School District of Rhinelander, and Rhinelander Partners in Education hopes to boost the local workforce while introducing students to what could be a future career.

It’s called Inspire, and it helps streamline the process for students to connect with employers as mentors and for job shadows, internships, and employment.

Similar experiential programs have been running in elsewhere in the state for years.

“Think about how you decided to get to the career that you’re in right now. I want you to think about that. What was that key decision point? I’m guessing for most of you, you had some sort of experience in that career that drew you to it,” Nikki Kiss of Inspire Sheboygan County told Rhinelander businesses recently.

In the last year, Inspire Sheboygan County facilitated thousands of student-to-business connections with its 121 member businesses.

That area is seeing some of the same trends as the Northwoods.

In the last decade or so, every Northwoods county saw a drop in the total labor force, according to a Forward Analytics study.

For example, Price County’s workforce dropped by 12 percent, while Iron County’s fell ten percent.

At the same time, most Northwoods counties actually added available jobs.

Rhinelander hopes to replicate Sheboygan County’s success with Inspire as its own program gets started, said Rhinelander High School principal Shane Dornfeld.

“If we can give students more experiences, more internships, more co-op opportunities, more Youth Apprenticeship opportunities, and just basic connections with some of you in the Rhinelander community, then the students will have the exposure of what’s right here in our community,” Dornfeld said.

Grow North now has an employee on staff dedicated to making connections between businesses and students. While the school district is specifically focused on links in the Rhinelander area, Grow North seeks to serve the needs of businesses and students throughout the entire region.

Students, the thinking goes, will benefit by seeing potential future careers.

Employers will benefit by setting up a stronger workforce pipeline once the students graduate.

“This is what’s going to really put us on a trajectory to really reaching the most amount of students for our businesses, and then, for the students, the exposure to the number of businesses and industries right here in the Northwoods,” said Leah Van Zile, who works for Wisconsin Public Service in Rhinelander.

Organizers hope to have the program running within months, and Rhinelander Superintendent Eric Burke is looking forward to it.

“The trial for Inspire Rhinelander, I think it’s exciting because we’re going to be at the forefront of making something really special for the Northwoods,” he said.

Burke is relying on Rhinelander businesses to have the same attitude as his friend Eric Ibister, the CEO of GenMet in Mequon. GenMet is a metal fabricator that employs about 50 people. Its products become parts in trucks and machinery.

Getting young people to work for him is sometimes a challenge.

Ibister thinks about one career fair he attended.

“I can remember one distinctly where the parents were steering their children away from the manufacturing area towards the FBI and police, places where their children will get shot at,” Ibister said. “It’s because they don’t know much about manufacturing.”

Ibister has made it his aim to get students thinking about modern technology in today’s manufacturing, much more than standing on assembly lines and turning lug nuts.

“I have a goal, and that is to have students run back to math and science class because they’ve seen an application,” he said.

Ibister figures he’s hosted thousands of students for tours at his shop over the years, some of whom, after getting a spark, later came to work at GenMet.

Ibister said he “guaranteed” Rhinelander manufacturers would get on board with student involvement through Inspire. It’s just a matter of getting the program off of the ground, he said.

If successful, that program will help Rhinelander businesses, whether they work in manufacturing or not. It will also help students envision future careers.

If your business is interested in learning more about involvement with Inspire Rhinelander, fill out this survey.