By Michael Jahr
When Pro Trade Job Development held a graduation ceremony in December, the event marked not only a new chapter for students but for Pro Trade itself, potentially paving the way for more Milwaukee residents to pursue careers in the trades.
Pro Trade is a Milwaukee construction trade program that instructs students in carpentry, painting, masonry and roofing at its 17,000-square-foot facility on the north side of town.
Ten of the 15 students who that day received their pre-apprentice and other certifications were part of a pilot program sponsored by the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce, also known as MMAC. Without that pilot program, many of the students would not have been able to participate in the course.
Before MMAC’s involvement, most of the money for the intensive 10-week course was provided by job-training programs, which limited participation to individuals with an incarceration record or to those receiving public assistance. As a result, many Milwaukee residents eager to learn a trade were without the resources to do so.
That changed when MMAC President Tim Sheehy, prompted by the riots in August in the Sherman Park neighborhood, met with Pro Trade CEO Rashaad Washington to see if the chamber could do something to help combat the chronic unemployment afflicting many of the city’s neighborhoods.
A contribution of around $40,000 from MMAC meant that Pro Trade could accept students into its October class without restrictions. Robert Byrd, a consultant at MMAC, served as a mentor to the students, monitoring their progress and them students during regular visits over the 10 weeks.
One of those students was Daniel Hilton-Thompson. After serving a short time in jail, the 22-year-old Milwaukee resident was looking for a job when his mom heard about Pro Trade on the news. Hilton-Thompson thought a career in the trades sounded like a good opportunity, so he applied.
“I really enjoyed it,” he said of the program. “The curriculum gave us the basic necessities so we can go into the construction industry. But it also gave me structure in my life and helped me to grow as a person.”
Like so many other Pro Trade graduates, Hilton-Thompson developed close relationships with his fellow students. In fact, during the course, the six students in his afternoon class began talking about starting a home-renovation business together.
They approached Byrd with the idea. He thought it had merit and began to walk them through the steps of starting a new venture.
“He was a good mentor — and still is,” Hilton-Thompson said of Byrd, who continues to meet weekly with the group. “He has great insights into how to start a business and keep it going.”
Byrd said he was impressed with the Pro Trade model.
“They are sincere about what they’re offering; honest about working to make a difference in people’s lives,” he said.
He was equally impressed with the students. Even though the course is challenging, “they were showing up, made a commitment and followed through,” Byrd noted. “Whatever sacrifices they had to make, they found a way to do it.”
Byrd was impressed by the teamwork and camaraderie he saw.
“One indicator was how happy everyone was. They were all motivated, encouraging each other and helping each other.”
Many of the graduates echoed that sentiment, noting that they had become like family with the staff and their fellow students over the 10 weeks.
“The reason my class succeeded was because we helped each other,” said Jasmine Boyd, one of the six students working to launch the home renovation business. “Everybody needs help. You can’t just succeed by yourself.”
Boyd, 21, found out about Pro Trade at a job fair. She was already working two jobs, but was attracted to the long-term opportunities that Pro Trade could provide.
“I wanted a better life and a better career,” she said. She was also motivated by a desire to contribute to her community.
“The city needs a lot of healing,” Boyd said.
Her vision is to find abandoned houses, repair them and make them available at reasonable prices to people who otherwise could not afford a home.
“Pro Trade is there to help better you and the community,” she said. “They provide training, tools, opportunities for employment. You have a business that helps you and has connections all over Wisconsin.
“I’m very grateful” to Pro Trade and the MMAC, Boyd added. “I never thought that this opportunity would come.”
Despite demanding coursework and personal challenges outside the classroom, 85 percent of the students who started the training in October had received their certification by December.
Thomas McCreary, director of adult and youth development at Pro Trade, said that while he would like to see 100 percent of the students graduate, given the numerous obstacles they face, 85 percent is a pretty good rate.
“I attribute our success to two things,” he said. “One is our Pro Trade team. We have a synergy and energy that is second to none. The second and most important factor is that our students make good choices. It may not start that way for some, but the ones who stay make the commitment to be better than they were when they started.”
MMAC will continue to follow up with and evaluate the students who participated in the pilot program, according to Mary Ellen Powers, MMAC chief operating officer. She said Pro Trade’s partnership with Mindful Staffing Solutions, a Milwaukee staffing agency that works with both the construction industry and the general community, was innovative.
“The combination of hard skills and personal development is very effective,” Powers said about the Pro Trade model. “They’re doing everything right.”
The partnership between Pro Trade and Mindful Staffing Solutions also caught the attention of the Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, which presented both businesses with a Wisconsin Job Honor Award. The award “celebrates Wisconsinites who have overcome significant barriers to employment and honors the employers who hire them.”