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Kraemer leaving Building Advantage, unsure what’s next

On the face of things, now would seem an odd time for Ken Kraemer to be stepping down from the top role at Building Advantage.

When Kraemer became executive director of the union-allied organization in June 2008, the country was in the midst of the worst recession in recent memory. The trades were hit particularly hard.

The well of work was close to running dry. Tight restrictions on lending meant few developers could borrow money to undertake new projects. In southeast Wisconsin — the territory covered by Building Advantage — unemployment on the union side of the trades was running at 30 percent. Workers with years or even decades of experience were leaving construction for steadier jobs in manufacturing and other industries. Worse still, apprenticeship enrollments were down, an ominous sign that few young people would be coming along to replenish the workforce.

Ten years later, the industry’s prospects could hardly look more different. With union workers in southeast Wisconsin having put in more than 16 million man-hours in 2018, many labor halls now report being at full employment. A historic building boom has left its mark on Milwaukee with a string of extraordinary projects: the Milwaukee Bucks’ Fiserv Forum, Northwestern Mutual’s new headquarters along the lakefront and the streetcar, just to name a few. Rather than a lack of jobs, the biggest cause of anxiety for many contractors is the need to find workers to complete everything now on their books.

“And most important of all, we have the largest number of union-construction apprentices we have had since 2006, which is as far back as state figures go,” Kraemer said.

So with things going so well, why the decision to step aside now? Kraemer said it’s not as if he has come to dislike his job. Nor is he simply trying to heed the common advice to “quit while you’re ahead.”

He’s stepping down instead mainly because he wants to avoid becoming complacent. Kraemer said that anyone who spends as much time as he has in a position like his inevitably begins to take a few too many things for granted.

“You see things start to repeat themselves and then that’s when you see that complacency come in. You think, ‘We’ve been through this before,’” he said. “So you need new leaders to come in who can say: Why can’t we change that?”

From bust to boom times, Kraemer’s job has remained largely the same. Kraemer said when he started at Building Advantage 10 years ago, his primary goal was to remind developers, local officials and anyone else who would listen about what he and many others consider the advantages of union construction.

“I was really out trying to reintroduce our industry to developers and to customers,” he said. “A large part of that was making sure that, when we came out of this (recession), we would be their partners.”

With the economy now in full swing, Kraemer has found little reason to change his message. He still has to answer to a board composed of five representatives of the management side of the construction industry and five on the labor side. He still makes the rounds with more than 600 unionized contractors, labor officials representing more than 20,000 union workers, local politicians, developers and others. And he still espouses what he sees as the primary benefits of union construction: craftsmanship, safety and reliability.

That’s not to say nothing changed in his 10 years at Building Advantage. For one, parents, schools and, most importantly, young people are much more willing now than in the past to consider the construction trades as an alternative to college.

For years following the recession, contractors struggled to replace the older workers who had gone into other industries during the downturn. That situation, thanks in large part to the efforts of Kraemer and others like him in the industry, is finally starting to ease up.

“Youth apprenticeship is really helpful,” Kraemer said. “These high school students are going to be able to get an apprenticeship and at least be exposed to the industry.”

As is true of most people in similar positions, Kraemer has long been familiar with both the area and industry he represents. Kraemer, now 56, was born and raised in Menomonee Falls. He worked for years as a steamfitter before being hired by the Wisconsin Pipe Trades to do marketing and lobbying work throughout the state.

“I couldn’t keep my mouth shut at some of those meetings,” he said. “That was really a learning curve for me, and I really enjoyed it. I got to hear from the politicians and tell them what was important from our viewpoint.”

Next came a stint helping to run a refrigeration-contracting business. The call to join Building Advantage in part came from Lyle Balistreri, former president of the Milwaukee Building & Construction Trades Council.

Dan Bukiewicz, a chairman of Building Advantage’s board and current president of the building trades council, said Kraemer had a real advantage in his experiences; he could approach his job with an understanding of both the labor and management sides of the industry.

“And you couple that with his personality and how well connected and well liked he is, he really had some special things going on,” Bukiewicz said. “He’s going to be missed.”

Kraemer said he took to the work eagerly but conceded he could not have done the job on his own. Three assistants — Erika Duelge, Melanie Richards and Anna Molinaro — provided him with indispensable support over the years.

“I was lucky. I got to meet (Milwaukee development director) Rocky Marcoux and the mayor, and all these other business acquaintances,” he said. “But these women became my friends and really guided me and help me navigate what was going on here.”

His assistants were in fact such a steadying force that Kraemer thinks maybe it’s time his board consider hiring a woman for his position. Not that he has much of a say in the matter. Kraemer said that, as far as he knows, his successor has yet to be chosen.

Whoever takes over will have a lot ahead of him or her. Although Milwaukee’s building boom is far from over, there are signs that a plateau has been reached. As contractors try to make sure they have their next project lined up, they will continue to struggle with the industry’s protracted labor shortage.

All that is not to say Kraemer is ready to fade into the background. He said he doesn’t know what’s next for him but said he would like to continue to have some role in the development of Milwaukee. Of particular interest to him are the proposed Couture project, a 44-story tower to be built near Lake Michigan, and the largely vacant stretch of land near the Fiserv Forum known as the Park East Corridor.

“At this point in my life I can afford to take some time to make a decision about what I want to do next, which I haven’t done yet,” he said. “But I still love being in Milwaukee, and I still believe in what we are doing here.”

About Dan Shaw, dan.shaw@dailyreporter.com

Dan Shaw is the associate editor at The Daily Reporter. He can be reached at dan.shaw@dailyreporter.com or at 414-225-1807.

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