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EXPANDING ON SAFETY: New training center to double classroom space (VIDEO)

For more than 30 years, the Wisconsin Laborers’ District Council Apprentice and Training Center in DeForest has taught prospective workers a slew of jobs in construction — and how to do them safely.

Now, the training center is undergoing an expansion that will double the amount of classroom space and add a large bay for hands-on classes. It’s an expansion that the laborers hope to complete by December, five years in the making.

The growth in the training center reflects changing attitudes in the construction industry. Companies are more proactive about implementing safety protocols and sending their workers home safe, said Craig Ziegler, director of the Wisconsin Laborers Training Center.

In addition to educating would-be workers, Ziegler and his fellow instructors travel the state to deliver safety seminars at companies or local union headquarters. The sessions can include an update on new rules guiding silica dust exposure, for instance.

“There is more awareness out there,” Ziegler said. “Everybody’s realizing that you are not just a number. You are a person and these companies have invested in you, you have invested in them and you want to have that partnership for a career.”

Crews work on an expansion project at the Wisconsin Laborers’ District Council Apprentice and Training Center in DeForest.

Crews work on an expansion project at the Wisconsin Laborers’ District Council Apprentice and Training Center in DeForest. (Staff photos and video by Rick Benedict)

When Ziegler began teaching at the training center part-time 18 years ago, the facility taught about 1,000 students a year. Last year, about 2,800 students went through the program. Classes run this upcoming year from September through the middle of May and pause during summer when construction companies are busiest.

A diverse trade, laborers work on sewer, water and other infrastructure projects, asbestos removal, demolition and a host of other jobs. The training center offers courses in 35 specializations, including commercial and industrial building construction, to tunnel work and asbestos removal.

The DeForest training center features classroom space and three large training bays where students practice plotting out foundations from blueprints, tear up and replace concrete and learn a host of other skills. Ziegler said instructors try to balance the course evenly between classroom instruction and hands-on training.

The course culminates in a three-day trip to Coloma, where the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 139 has a training center. There, students dig a trench and lay infrastructure.

“We backfill it every day and we re-dig,” Ziegler said. “When I taught the class it was my favorite part. You see students really understand what they’ve been doing over the previous weeks. They are going to find out if it is for them or not.”

Ziegler said most prospective laborers land at the training center after trying another career out first.

Ziegler himself earned a teaching degree, but opted to become a laborer instead before he was recruited to train workers part-time 18 years ago. The average age of most workers who enter the program is 27. Those who come from other careers are motivated to do well in this one because they know the stakes, he said.

And although a tight labor market has many construction companies scrambling to find workers, Ziegler said it’s nothing new. Laborers who lay sewer and water infrastructure have long been in high demand.

“Since I’ve been here there has been a constant need for sewer and water pipelayers,” Ziegler said. “It’s a very unique kind of work and it’s not for everybody. Contractors are constantly looking for somebody like that.”

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