Vashaun Morgan has been tinkering with electronics for about as long as he can remember.
He started by tearing computers apart as a curious eight-year-old. Now he’s trying to build one from scratch.
So it made sense for the 18-year-old Cudahy High School senior to explore a career as an electrician. He’s planning on attending Milwaukee Area Technical College after graduating. He strolled through a career fair in Waukesha put on by Building Advantage recently, where hundreds of students like him explored careers in carpentry, plumbing, masonry and other fields.
“I like messing with electricity, without electrocuting myself,” he said, joking. He sheepishly admits, though, that he’s slipped up a couple times. “It wasn’t too many volts.”
With the construction industry struggling to find the next generation of skilled workers, a slew of programs are emerging to engage students like Morgan.
And increasingly, school districts are investing in more resources, equipment and infrastructure needed to expose kids to trade careers early. In a round of voter referendums approved in early April, school districts throughout Wisconsin set aside some of that money to invest in skilled-trade training programs.
For instance, a $59 million referendum approved by voters in the DC Everest School District, near Wausau, includes a $10 million overhaul of equipment needed to train students for trade careers. The Whitnall School District’s successful $16 million referendum includes $4.1 million that will help pay for technical-education at Whitnall High School. And the Brown Deer School District’s $25.9 million referendum earmarks $2.2 million for overhauling technical-education spaces.
For some students, access to these classes can bust stereotypes about the trades.
South Milwaukee High School Juniors Alonzo Castillo, 16, and Diego Rangel, 17, were first drawn to technical-education classes there because they seemed easy. But they soon learned that there’s a sense of accomplishment in making something useful from raw materials.
They were drawn to a masonry station at the Building Advantage career fair, where representatives of Operative Plasterers’ and Cement Masons’ Local 599 gave kids trowels to smooth a block of wet concrete.
“With simple things like cement and sidewalks, there are processes and steps you have to take just to make it look appealing,” Castillo said.
“It looks pretty satisfying,” Rangel added. There’s something almost zen about turning lumpy cement into a unruffled surface, he said.
Fond du Lac schools are hoping a new high school addition will give students extensive exposure to the construction trades.
The Fond du Lac School District plans to break ground Wednesday on an expansion to Fond du Lac High School called the Career Construction Academy, a specialized training center for trade careers.
The Fond du Lac School District contributed $750,000 to the $1.1 million project, and is paying for the rest using donations from CD Smith, J.F. Ahern and other contractors.
Other firms have also chipped in materials and work to support the project. Bob Roehrig, an architectural sales consultant, at County Materials Corp., contributed bricks and cement blocks for the 5,750-square-foot project. Bray Architects provided designs.
Roehrig said the academy will have places where students can get hands-on experience in plumbing, carpentry, electrical work and other trades.
“Right now, they’re trying to do it in a classroom stetting,” Roehrig said. “It’s very hard to do that sort of training.”
Schools have struggled to keep up with advances in the private sector as machines used in manufacturing and other fields have become more expensive, said Glenn Schlender, superintendent of the Luxemburg-Casco School District.
A $15.9 million referendum approved by voters in early April included nearly $500,000 to improve Luxemburg-Casco High School’s metal and woodworking equipment. Schlender said the owner of a local machine shop will advise school officials on where to install the equipment.
The district’s renewed concentration on trade careers came out of a three-day public seminar in 2015, which helped school officials set priorities for the district. High on the list is a mandate to better prepare students for jobs in construction and manufacturing, Schlender said.
Since then, Luxemburg-Casco has set up an honors program for students that demonstrate an aptitude for the trades. High school students can also join a program that places them in online classes and gives them on-the-job training instead of keeping them bound to a desk for the entire school day.
“The students are excited,” Schlender said. “Especially the kids that don’t want to sit in a desk all day.”
The district’s board of education even accepted a small bid from a trades class to rebuild the roof of a concession stand, Schlender said.
But the student’s instructor kept a watchful eye.
After laying only four rows of shingles on the new roof, the teacher noticed the kids were off by an eighth-of-an-inch. That discrepancy could throw the whole project off. So the kids started over, and eventually laid a well-made roof.
It makes sense for schools to invest in trade education, because Wisconsin’s worker shortage isn’t slowing down, said Horicon High School Principal Teresa Graven.
The School District of Horicon passed a referendum four years ago that included improvements for technical education. The Dodge County school district has also worked closely with one of the region’s largest companies, John Deere, Graven said.
“I think it’s warranted,” she said. “It always falls on education when there is a worker shortage or a skills shortage.”Follow @natebeck9