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Wisconsin construction companies embrace youth apprenticeships to bridge skills gap

By: Ethan Duran//June 1, 2023//

Wisconsin construction companies embrace youth apprenticeships to bridge skills gap

By: Ethan Duran//June 1, 2023//

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Wisconsin construction apprenticeship
Craig Griffie, an administrator and instructor for Wauwatosa East High School, speaks in front of parents, students, elected officials, contractors and union members. More than 20 students on Wednesday signed up for youth and registered apprenticeships for Industry Signing Day, the third year of the event. (Staff photo by Ethan Duran)

More than 20 students on Wednesday signed up for youth and registered apprenticeships with different contractors and unions for Industry Signing Day at Wauwatosa East High School.

Students arrived from Wauwatosa- and Brookfield-area high schools and signed with contractors such as Mortenson, Findorff, Staff Electric, Payne and Dolan, CG Schmidt and Milestone Plumbing.

Gov. Tony Evers appeared in a video to thank staff and organizers for their work and congratulated students for making the next step into their journey in the skilled trades. He spoke in front of school and elected officials, parents, students, contractors and union members.

Evers emphasized how apprenticeships play a critical role in Wisconsin’s economy and infrastructure and how workforce development will build bridges and roads and future electric vehicle infrastructure.

“As a state we work harder to ensure Wisconsinites have access to resources and training to ensure high quality, family-supporting jobs they need to be successful. We’ve seen record-low unemployment, record-high labor force participation and record-high participation in our apprenticeship programs,” Evers added.

The fact construction companies were embracing young people, including youth apprentices, was a relatively new phenomenon, David Polk, the director of the Bureau of Apprenticeship Standards for the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development, told The Daily Reporter.

“We’re happy that more companies are embracing young people stepping on the job sites and getting an occupational taste of what it means to become a construction worker, a carpenter, a plumber or an electrician,” Polk added.

The number of students who wanted to enter the trades currently was “mind-blowing,” Ryan Ross, a carpenter at Mortenson, told The Daily Reporter. Ross, who has worked in trades for 20 years, added that the construction trades have become more accepting to new ideas, including the celebration of signing youth.

Bringing more young people into the trades helped backfill job openings left behind by a rapidly retiring trades workforce, State Sen. Rob Hutton told The Daily Reporter. According to NPR, the application rate for jobs like plumbers and electricians dropped 49% between 2020 and 2022.

“We know we have a declining workforce because of the retirement population, so it’s critical we begin to backfill those job openings. These young people are case in point number one of just how gifted they are to do that. We want to continue to see that growth,” Hutton added.

Encouraging youth to pursue trades careers also allowed them to do things they were passionate about, State Rep. Robyn Vining told The Daily Reporter. Vining added that she had attended Industry Signing Day since it started three years ago.

“We need opportunities for students that match what they’re passionate about and how they spend their lives. Every kid deserves to grow up and have a career track with a life-giving job, and that looks different for each kid. It’s exciting to have opportunities in the trades,” Vining said.

Wauwatosa East uses the certified pre-apprenticeship (CPA) model, typically for training programs to get people ready to start a registered apprenticeship, and applies it to the school’s curriculum and is the only high school in the state to do so, Craig Griffie, a certified pre-apprenticeship program administrator, told The Daily Reporter.

Students in the youth apprenticeship program start typically in their senior year and work 450 hours and co-enroll in a related course at school, Griffie added. Companies use it as a way to fast-track people into registered apprenticeships, he noted.

“There’s a need for this in our schools and our community. This is an easy sell to kids. It’s a great opportunity, they see the value in it. They voluntarily show up during the second semester, before school at 7 a.m., to learn this stuff. It’s a commitment that the kids make. This (ceremony) is just the icing on the cake,” Griffie added.

Haley Powers, an 18-year-old youth apprentice at Wauwatosa East, said she was looking forward to meeting different people throughout her career.

“The people I’ve met over the last year have been so diverse, I feel like as I continue to go further and be involved with the union more and meet more individuals, it should be interesting,” she added.

Members of the Carpenter’s Training Institute and North Central States Regional Council of Carpenters helped co-design the curriculum for Wauwatosa East’s CPA program, Griffie said.

Milwaukee Tool donated bags of hand tools to each graduating student and Wauwatosa East High School hosted the event.


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