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It’s time for innovative policies for construction careers

John Mielke is president of the Associated Builders and Contractors of Wisconsin.

Anyone who was in high school before 1990 can recall a requirement to take at least one type of technical-education class, where you would learn some basic techniques about cooking, sewing, metals, woodworking, printing, architecture and the list goes on.

The intent was to expose students to a variety of technical education areas and provide insight into career pathways that do not require a four-year university degree. As a result, some students had basic skills to enter the workforce or had a good sense of a worthwhile career area. At the very least, students learned skills that could be applied to everyday life.

Tech-ed classes were eventually all but eliminated from our high schools as “college mania” became prevalent and school districts found other uses for their funding. This affected many students who would have been a better fit for hands-on, skilled trades. We all know individuals who say they would have enjoyed a hands-on career. In fact, the ABC of Wisconsin Apprenticeship program enrolls a high number of four-year college graduates who have decided to give a hands-on construction career a try instead of their original field of study.

It’s a problem when two-thirds of new jobs require a technical degree, but we are sending half of our high school graduates to four-year universities. The University of Wisconsin System’s Progress & Completion report reveals that only 65% of incoming freshmen in 2014 have completed their degrees. Unfortunately, many parents and teachers still expect a four-year college degree to lead to a well-paying job and satisfying occupation for everyone. In reality, we are producing too many university graduates for the high-growth jobs of our economy, like those in construction. Although many succeed with a four-year degree or higher, others would have been better off seeking a different path.

Even before the pandemic, the construction industry was faced with a severe worker shortage, as were other industries struggling to find workers with technical skills. Associated Builders and Contractors of Wisconsin is promoting a public-policy initiative to support and increase technical and career readiness in Wisconsin’s K-12 system. With these policies, Wisconsin could provide more career options for our young people while helping employers fill some demand-driven occupations.

The policies are intended to maximize labor force participation through K-12 career readiness initiatives. There are three specific initiatives with several tactics for each. The list includes:

1. Increase K-12 Education connection with industry partners, e.g., increase the use of industry-based credentials for skills development in high school.
2. Integrate career readiness into every classroom, e.g., all students could be provided with job-based learning before graduation.
3. Develop academic and career planning honoring all postsecondary routes, including careers in construction, especially registered apprenticeships, e.g., allow for dual enrollment for registered apprenticeship-related instruction.

We are enthusiastic about these sensible policies and look forward to working with many different organizations to get them adopted.

October is “Careers in Construction Month,” when we acknowledge everyone who builds Wisconsin and when we think about how we can do a better job promoting excellent careers in our industry. The time is now. These common-sense policies ABC of Wisconsin is proposing would go a long way toward accomplishing this.

For more details on the policies, visit abcwi.org/CareersAgenda.

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