Wisconsin’s workforce development programs were recognized nationally by touring labor organizations, who are gearing up to change construction’s culture and address employment hurdles as the federal government raked in money for infrastructure projects.
Sean McGarvey, the president of the North American Building Trades Union (NABTU), which represents more than 3 million trades workers, called the next trades force the “infrastructure generation,” and credited federal measures such as the Inflation Reduction Act and the CHIPS and Science Act for the largest infrastructure investments since the Post War period.
“You’re going to hear about all this federal investment, we see it at the moment as an opportunity to provide an opportunity to the next generation of skilled trades professionals, what we like to call now the infrastructure generation. Never has there been an opportunity in the United States since the Greatest Generation came back from World War 2 and built the middle class in the United States as we face right now,” McGarvey said at a news conference, noting legislature signed by President Joe Biden.
McGarvey was touring the U.S. to showcase programs, such as Milwaukee’s WRTP | Big Step and empowHER, that introduced people to construction trades and visit projects that benefitted from federal dollars.
Gov. Tony Evers and McGarvey on Wednesday toured the National Electrical Contractors Association/International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Milwaukee Electrical Joint Apprenticeship Training Committee (JATC). The topics of the day were federal investment, childcare challenges and diversity and inclusion in the future construction workforce.
At a news conference, Evers said Wisconsin would work with the Minnesota Department of Transportation to replace the Blatnik Bridge between Superior, Wisconsin, and Duluth, Minnesota, with the help of federal funding. In August, the Wisconsin Department of Transportation and Minnesota transportation officials both submitted a formal request for $1.07 billion to help pay for repairs to the aging structure.
“This is all great news, and it wouldn’t happen without our partners in the building trades. But we’ve got a lot more work to do and we’re going to need more skilled workers to do that,” Evers added, noting the state still faced workforce shortages and consistent childcare deserts. Women are most affected by lack of childcare, and Wisconsin is one of two states with programs to address the issue.
Milwaukee and New York City were both selected to lead pilot programs to financially support training union workers who need daycare programs, particularly care centers near existing work sites. That program is sponsored by TradesFutures, a nonprofit corporation dedicated to improving apprenticeship readiness programs and.
U.S. Congresswoman Gwen Moore, who was in the House that passed the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, said the billions in funding was already visible in Wisconsin with lead pipe removal, solar panel installation and electric vehicle infrastructure. She said she wasn’t upset with ongoing road construction, “because that’s money being made.”
After sharing her experience about working a state job while raising an infant, Moore highlighted labor challenges for women entering construction and other sectors.
“One of the biggest problems that we’ve had, that my granddaughters have had, is we don’t have childcare. It’s not how it used to be where you can put your babies with grandma while you go to work. Because grandma is working,” Moore added.
David Polk, the director for apprenticeship standards for the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development, said despite the $4 trillion investment from the federal government, there weren’t enough people to work in manufacturing and construction jobs. He highlighted empowHER for mentoring women who were training in trades work and its expansion across the state.
“We are at a point in our workforce where we can’t afford to be unwelcoming to anyone in our trades. We have $4 trillion in national investment and infrastructure. For the most part, we don’t have enough people to man all those jobs. So, we can’t afford to be unwelcoming to those of different backgrounds, to women who would like to embark on those occupations,” Polk added.
McGarvey said his organization was working on a new pilot program to hold building projects up to behavioral standards, likening it to existing green LEED standards. The owner, contractor and labor organizations would sign an agreement to uphold cultural norms on a job site to make it more comfortable and productive and terminate employees who cause problems.
“This would be like LEED-certified for the culture of a construction site. The pre-requisites for facilities on a construction site for both men and women, running water, behavioral norms that will be practiced on a construction site,” McGarvey said.
McGarvey said the program would be ready for prime-time next spring.
Along with NABTU, speaking were representatives of the Milwaukee Building and Construction Trades Council, the Milwaukee Area Labor Council, Barret-Lo Visionary Development, TradesFutures and the city of Milwaukee. After visiting Milwaukee, NABTU officials will tour Los Angeles next.