Say Yes Buffalo’s youth apprenticeship program blazes a nontraditional path

by Ben Tsujimoto

Trezhon Powell did not know it as a kid, but watching online wiring tutorials to tinker with his Xbox video game system would be a glimpse into his future.

That future has come sooner than expected for him and many of his peers.

The 18-year-old Hutch-Tech graduate is in the first class of youth apprentices in CareerWise Greater Buffalo, a new pathway program for graduates of six Buffalo Public Schools, through Say Yes Buffalo, to directly enter the workforce after graduation. Later this month, Powell will be paid to work as a maintenance technician at Tesla, the South Park Avenue branch of a multinational company focused on sustainable energy.

The work aspect of the three-year apprenticeship is just part of it: Since Sept. 5, Powell has taken two classes toward a mechatronics degree through SUNY Erie at Northland Workforce Training Center. The hands-on, tuition-free courses – such as industrial wiring – are intended to directly complement Powell’s work at Tesla.

Trezhon Powell
Trezhon Powell, 18, examines a safety switch during a mechatronics class at Northland Workforce Training Center.

“It’s a real passion I get to pursue,” Powell said in an interview earlier this month.

Say Yes’ apprenticeship program fits within a larger movement intended to give high school graduates more options than the traditional two- or four-year college education route that often follows high school. Should Powell finish the three years required, the program mandates apprentices be offered full-time jobs with their companies, with an average annual salary of $45,000.

“Students want access to high-quality careers, and our employers have vast workforce needs,” said Say Yes Buffalo CEO David Rust. “We’re honored to bridge the gap between the two and make our economy and our community stronger for it.”

The work/school hybrid also accelerates the development of students who have already built skills in the realm of Career and Technical Education (CTE), an initiative within Buffalo Public Schools in the last five years. Powell’s pursuit of advanced manufacturing is one possibility through the apprenticeship; there’s a strong digital emphasis, too, with others working as data analysts and UX designers.

Trezhon Powell
Trezhon Powell, right, smiles as the lights change on the switchboard he is manipulating during a hands-on class at Northland Workforce Training Center.

“This new initiative is a game changer for Buffalo students, and soon, other students across our region,” Rust said.

The modern youth apprenticeship program last year pulled from six Buffalo Public Schools at which Say Yes employs Career Coaches: Burgard, Hutch-Tech, Math, Science & Technology, McKinley, Riverside and South Park. The existing schools were selected because of their large student populations and lower rates of post-grad college enrollment.

In the inaugural year, more than 200 applicants in spring 2021 from the six schools ultimately filled 25 positions across six area companies: Tesla, Harmac Medical Products, M&T Bank, Moog, Wegmans and Rich Products. For these businesses, varying degrees of worker shortages have made the Say Yes program attractive. A Say Yes Success Coach helps the cast of apprentices navigate the challenges of the new program.

A vocational education is in vogue again. Only now it’s called “career and technical education” — CTE, for short — and it looks a lot different than what you, your father or your grandfather might remember from high school. For example, machine shop is out. Advanced manufacturing is in. Auto body repair, cosmetology and nursing are still around. But Powell was intrigued when Jennifer Ray, a Say Yes career coach, presented about the apprenticeship program at Hutch-Tech. “It didn’t sound real to me,” Powell said of his first impression.

He said he wrestled with the idea last spring, knowing competition for spots could be fierce and that the program represented an unusual path. “It took a while to get the confidence,” he said.

Powell’s interests aligned with the position at Tesla. As high school graduation loomed, he continued to work with Ray through Say Yes’ boot camp, which aims to prepare students for a professional interview. Even though he was unsure of his odds after the Tesla interview, Powell was selected.

Trezhon Powell
Industrial wiring classes through SUNY Erie at Northland work in conjunction with Trezhon Powell’s apprentice job at Tesla as a maintenance technician.

The first year of the program has shown potential for rapid growth. Daphne Ross, Say Yes’ senior director for College Success and Communications, said 15-20 other companies from Buffalo have inquired about offering apprenticeships for next year’s cohort. Ross said the goal for the cohort of Class of 2023 students is 50 apprenticeship hires.

Several of the area’s higher education institutions have announced partnerships to expand their offerings and help fuel the WNY workforce.

The original six Buffalo high schools repeated as the pool for the second cohort, but Ross said the goal is to offer the program districtwide within the next three to five years. Should Say Yes’ momentum be sustained, then the program could ultimately improve worker shortages and post-graduation employment issues. Students like Powell – who said he looks forward to classes – are finding the nontraditional path can be fruitful.

“I could have done anything else,” Powell said. “But I took a chance.”

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