NO REST FOR THE WEARY: Trades still working to recruit, train apprentices during outbreak


Despite the outbreak of COVID-19 that’s upended much of public life, Wisconsin’s construction industry is working hard to train the next generation of tradespeople.

Although many classrooms, summer camps and other in-person events have been closed or delayed, the coronavirus hasn’t in the least stopped demand for talented workers. For now, the immediate response has involved moving some courses online, connecting with students remotely and putting off in-person events.

Here’s how several construction groups are working to adapt their training programs.

Plumbers Local 75

Plumbers Local 75 is working quickly to offer virtual learning, said Wesley Zastrow, training director at the union.

The union’s apprentices in Madison are taking courses online through Madison Area Technical College. In Milwaukee, the union was still evaluating whether apprentices will work remotely this spring or start up again on job sites in the fall, Zastrow said.

For new recruits, however, the union is accepting applications through its website and had planned an online orientation session on May 1. Typically, Local 75 conducts such sessions in person.


Hours to complete an apprenticeship: 8,000 total, including 572 daytime classroom hours
Starting wage: $43.65 for a first-year journeyman

Learn more at or call 414-359-1318 or 888-491-9899

Zastrow said should social-distancing requirements stay in place through this fall, he expects the union will be prepared to teach remotely.

“We’re putting all the pieces in place to do that,” Zastrow said.

The union asks applicants for a high school diploma or GED, a valid driver’s ID and to pass an aptitude test. An apprenticeship itself runs 8,000 hours and typically takes about five years to complete. Of that, apprentices complete 572 hours of day classes – time that’s paid.

The union holds classes in the Milwaukee area at its building on West Parkland Avenue, and at Madison Area Technical College for apprentices in that region.

First year apprentices start out making $19.65 an hour and work under a journeyman or master plumber. A first-year journeyman makes $43.65 an hour.

Despite the uncertainty stemming from the pandemic, the union is working to make sure training runs as smoothly as possible.

“Everything thing is in limbo due to the coronavirus, Zastrow said. “We’re plowing forward. We’re still working as an essential business.”

Associated Builders and Contractors of Wisconsin

The ABC of Wisconsin has moved many of its apprenticeship courses online through the eight technical schools in Wisconsin that the group works with, said Kelly Tourdot, vice president of the trade group.

The ABC offers training programs for 12 different trades – including carpentry, plumbing and roofing –for those that aren’t interested in joining a labor union. Students can apply to enter a training program after meeting some basic requirements, and the ABC will help connect them with a contractor that can provide on-the-job training. Often companies will cover most, if not all, of the cost of tuition.


Hours to complete apprenticeship: Two to five years depending on the trade

Starting hourly wage: Pay ranges from $22.26 (roofing) to $38.99 (sprinkler fitting)
Learn more at or call 608-244-6056 or 800-829-9926

Tourdot said this spring 16 different contractors have hired 20 different students, which Tourdot said is a sign that companies are still looking for talent despite the pandemic.

Typically, students devote one day every other week to coursework.

The vast majority of the apprentices already in ABC training programs have been able to continue their training remotely, Tourdot said. Only 12 of the group’s 1,600 apprentices have seen delays because of unfortunate circumstances, she said.

ABC, however, has had to cancel some in-person outreach programs, although it’s working with school districts to offer a remote overview of its apprenticeship program, Tourdot said.

The trade group is also working to plan ways to adapt its programs to a gradual reopening of schools as the coronavirus runs its course, Tourdot said. Before schools open up entirely, they’re expected to limit the number of people allowed in the same room.

But because apprentices will continue working through the pandemic, they’ll be well-versed in social-distancing practices that help prevent the spread of the virus, Tourdot said.

“Everybody’s kind of risen to the occasion at this time,” Tourdot said. “We appreciate that everyone’s been so flexible.”

International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 494

Despite COVID-19, IBEW Local 494 apprentices are still taking courses online through the pandemic.

Apprentices are able to tune into lessons using Google Classrooms, and are continuing to work in the field, said John Zapfel, a spokesman for Local 494.

Unlike workers in some other trades, electricians spend plenty of time in the classroom.


Hours to complete an apprenticeship: 8,000 hours on-the-job and 1,100 hours in the classroom, or about five years.

Starting wage: $41.03 for a journeyman electrician in the Milwaukee area

Learn more at or call 414-543-9060

During the first three semesters of the program, people work four days a week for a contractor, spend one day in the classroom, and go to class one night a week, having a starting wage of $16 an hour.

After that, apprentices work five days a week and attend night classes twice a week. Apprentices then take a journeyman examination and can make $41.03 starting out in the Milwaukee area.

Electricians aren’t taking the extra time in the classroom for granted. The work can be dangerous, and electricians must pair a knowledge of complex systems with a variety of conditions.

It takes about five years to complete an electrician apprenticeship program – or 8,000 hours of on-the-job experience paired with 1,100 hours of classroom time.

Although classes are happening online, Local 494 has two training centers in the Milwaukee area, at 11001 W. Plank Court, #120, Wauwatosa, and 6300 W. Layton Ave., Greenfield. Madison Apprentices take course at Madison Area Technical College.

Local 494 is still accepting applications throughout the pandemic – although it is now postponing testing, Zapfel said.

“If individuals are interested they are more than welcome to apply,” he said.

International Union of Operating Engineers Local 139

IUOE Local 139, the largest construction union in the state, represents the operators of some of the biggest equipment you’ll see on a jobsite.

And although a statewide stay-home order has closed the union’s state-of-the-art training center in Coloma to in-person courses, Local 139 is working to go remote.

Starting a career as a union operator begins by applying. The union asks for copies of a high school diploma, GED or transcripts, a valid driver’s license and references. Then you’ll be asked to take a written test.


Hours to complete an apprenticeship: 6,000

Starting wages: $35 an hour, plus benefits

To learn more visit or call 715-228-4911

A career as an operator comes with wages that start at $35 an hour and include benefits. It typically takes about five years for apprentices to earn the 6,000 hours they need to graduate the program.

Before the pandemic, the union had asked applicants to attend an in-person information session. It is now working on a remote version of that event, said Dan Sperberg, 139’s training director.

As such, the union is keeping in contact with those interested in joining the apprenticeship program.

Local 139 runs a well-attended externship event that drew more than 800 parents, teachers and students in November. But because of the outbreak, the union had to cancel the event scheduled for this spring and expects it may have to devise alternative plans for the next event, Sperberg said.

“Social distancing brought on by the pandemic has pushed us to become more innovative,” he said.

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