Today we are facing a near crisis around the number of skilled laborers and artisans in the workforce.
During the lockdown of 2020, we saw people across America ban together to support their local restaurants and shops, demonstrating that we as a community value the artisan and entrepreneur’s contribution to the quality of our lives. As the world reopens, now is the time to make large investments in those skilled workers whose crafts can profoundly improve our health, close environmental justice gaps and produce a new generation of artisans. Investments like the ones advanced by the Biden Administration in its Infrastructure Bill bolster America’s infrastructure and repay us in dividends for generations when connected to thoughtful workforce development efforts that include true diversity and equity efforts.
WRTP | BIG STEP was proud to welcome Vice President Kamala Harris; Michael Regan, the Environmental Protection Agency Administrator; U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin; and U.S. Rep. Gwen Moore to talk about the Biden-Harris Lead Pipe and Paint Action Plan, a public health and infrastructure plan the administration released in December. Lead exposure, whether from water or paint, is a plague on nearly every pillar within our civic contract—public health, safety, environmental justice, and education. It’s also an opportunity. Although certainly not a silver bullet, investing in lead pipe and paint remediation will affect not only those foundational public pillars, it is also a vehicle by which we can transform the lives of disenfranchised families looking for a chance at a middle-class life.
We greeted these political leaders at our headquarters alongside LIUNA113, Plumbers 75, IBEW 2150 and their fellow skilled trade union brothers and sisters, who for generations have made private investments in developing a qualified workforce to build modern skyscrapers and tackle the less-glamorous challenge of holding together an aging infrastructure without nearly enough public investment. Now is the time to respond to years of neglect and simultaneously make an investment in the systems that provided an opportunity for so many Americans in the 1970s and 1980s to enjoy a solidly middle-class life without the burden of post-secondary student loan debt, all the while improving quality of life for everyone in the community.
To achieve these goals, we must connect more people of color to Registered Apprenticeship and pre-apprenticeships while providing the supports necessary to see them through these journeys. This is work best done on the local level, with intentionality. WRTP | BIG STEP has proudly worked with leaders at the city and county level for decades to put measures in place that help ensure that contractors and unions train and employ people from our most economically challenged neighborhoods. When this work is funded and done with intention, we’ve seen how it changes lives. The infusion of skilled talent, family-sustaining wage careers, and an appreciation for safe, quality, and aesthetically beautiful spaces transforms neighborhoods.
As a community, we need to advocate for both the resources to make improvements to our public infrastructure, but also hold accountable these efforts by ensuring they are truly transformative and improve economic prosperity for individuals who have not enjoyed that security. The City of Milwaukee’s Residential Preference Program and the City of Racine’s Racine Works Program are good starts to getting traditionally disenfranchised people to the door of apprenticeship—but they don’t invest in seeing people through apprenticeship, and that is where the real community return on investment happens.
Entering a Registered Apprenticeship is much like entering college: there are requirements and benchmarks to be met. We would never expect a freshman in college to plot their coursework and journey to successful graduation without the guidance and coaching of an academic advisor. Why do we expect something different from an apprentice?
Apprenticeship is a long and steadfast model within our industry, and it has served us well. We are glad that new industries and sectors are adopting this model and “earn as you learn” approach, and it’s encouraging that we have public officials at the table advocating for this talent development strategy.
However, our collective ask is that as infrastructure funding and ARPA-funded projects begin to take shape, public officials think about the long-term benefit of investing in career pathways, not just a jobs program. For young apprentices, this means making it through the 3 – 5-year journey to Journeyperson. We need Apprenticeship Specialists who can serve as success coaches offering life coaching skills, support services, or additional training—whatever supports are needed to make it across the finish line.
Programs that bring people to the promise of a job that then ends or falls through are only creating greater distrust in the community. We need to ensure long-term, secure employability, and a Journeyperson’s card simply has far greater promise of delivering on that promise. Solutions like Apprenticeship Specialists, embedded within our community organizations, can help support people on those cold mornings when the car doesn’t start, and how to budget when that first seasonal layoff happens. We are asking our local public officials to bring us to the table, to work toward the real impact we all want to have, so that collectively we can begin to make good on the promise of Registered Apprenticeship and the promise of opportunity for all.