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Feds investigate minority apprentices

By Sean Ryan

A former union president is joining the chorus of criticism of state-certified apprenticeship programs and prompting a federal investigation of minority recruitment and retention.

Paul Blackman, retired president of Steelworkers Federal Union No. 19806 in Milwaukee, said the state is not doing enough to police the programs it certifies to make sure minorities are making it through construction apprenticeships.

“This is not the result of some outrage because of something that just happened recently,” he said. “What I’m really representing here is a decade of history.”

Blackman’s criticism echoes that of the state Legislature, which in October approved an audit of minority participation in apprenticeship programs. A lack of construction training for minorities also was an argument that led to Milwaukee’s approval of a law increasing city resident hiring on city projects.

Blackman’s complaint led the U.S. Department of Labor to investigate the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development’s apprenticeship program.

The federal agency, which has not completed its review of DWD, investigates all complaints tied to state apprenticeship programs.

The DWD sent information to the Department of Labor about the state agency’s outreach and educational programs intended to recruit and retain minority apprentices. Federal agents also investigated DWD’s apprenticeship program in 2005 and decided the agency complied with affirmative action laws, according to an e-mail attributed to DWD spokesman Richard Jones.

The DWD certifies local unions and the Associated Builders and Contractors of Wisconsin to run apprenticeship programs. Blackman said the DWD should decertify apprenticeship programs that do not include enough minorities. He said the minority participation goal should be 22 percent.

“Put them out of business,” he said. “That’s what the law says. The law says you should be decertifying these apprenticeship committees if they are not following the affirmative action statutes.”

The state has never decertified a program over minority participation. State law requires apprenticeship committees set goals and establish programs to recruit apprentices and requires DWD recommend ways to improve programs that fall short. Programs can be decertified if they show continued disregard for recruiting minorities for apprenticeships.

As of Oct. 30, minorities accounted for 490 of the 6,356 construction apprentices enrolled in state-certified programs, an overall participation of less than 8 percent.

“Less than 10 percent have been introduced into the trades,” Blackman said, “and that has been done by design. That is not an accident.”

The days when journeymen tried to keep their construction knowledge and jobs within a small group are long gone, said John Kubica, president and business manager of the Roofers and Waterproofers Local 65. For the past six years, roughly half of Local 65’s apprentices have been minorities, including five of the 10 trainees registered this year.

Lack of minority participation in construction training is a nationwide concern, and Wisconsin is no exception, said Earl Buford, executive director of the WRTP/Big Step training program in Milwaukee.

“We know we’re not there yet,” he said. “But I think the effort is there, and the investment is there to keep things on course.”

Buford and Blackman said more needs to be done to prevent minority apprentices from dropping out of training programs.

“You have to have a high school diploma, and it certainly is a benefit to know some math in order to succeed in the trades,” Blackman said. “And it is tough, and I understand that. But it is not rocket science.”


  1. As I read this article I think about my years at Milwaukee Tech High School. I chose Tech becasue of its reputation for being the best in grades and best in attendance. Tech was always in competition with King during the years (79-83). Tech was special. You spent your freshmen year spending 3 to 4 weeks taking trade courses such as carpentry, electrical, printing, chemistry, etc. I chose cabinetmaking becasue I liked working with my hands and creating things. I knew I had good academic skills but I wanted a trade becasue Milwaukee Tech is a trade school. My sophomore and junior year I had Mr. Love and my senior year was with Mr. Taft, both a excellent teachers, so I thought at the time. During the end of my junior year I begin to think about my next step after high school. Wow. What am I going to do? I went to my guidance counselor. I don’t remember his name becasue I only remember spending a few moments in his office. He was an African Amercian man who recommended college. I told him I didn’t want to leave the State but I would like to leave Milwaukee. He took out a Wisconsin map and a ruler. He measured the distance between Whitewater and Milwaukee, 60 miles a one hour trip. That’s how my journey began towards developing a career. I graduated Whitewater, spent one year in a guidance couselor master’s program, 3 months active duty during Operation Desert Storm, and three years working at a career managment company in Brookfield. I never heard the word apprenticeship until my employment at the Milwaukee Urban League in 1997. I was shock. My career could have gone in a different direction had I known about apprenticeship training. Why didn’t my high school instructors or guidance counselor mention apprenticeship training to me. Even though I was one of the best in class. My projects and final exam proved that I could do the work. Why was I left out of these conversations. Was it becasue I am an African American female. I could have been a carpentry construction business owner. I regret not having the opportunity to choose. Wisconsin has a problem with educating their minority population for the trades. DWD, DOL, and BAS, needs to ensure that all high school students are well informed of their options begining at freshmen year. We need to be more creative, inclusive, and responsive to the needs our young people. They need guidance, mentors and most of all support from parents, educators, counselors, and leaders of our State. Let’s not continue down this road of bickering over numbers. It’s time we do something to make sure no child is left behind.

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