For Milwaukee Area Technical College Dean Becky Alsup, one of the biggest mistakes she sees students make when they arrive is to assume they need to have everything about their future careers already figured out.
Rather than expect newcomers to arrive with firm plans, MATC has gone to great lengths to organize an in-house team of admissions navigators and career coaches to help students make their first tentative steps into what might become life-long pursuits. As dean of MATC’s manufacturing, construction and transportation pathway, Alsup inevitably sees a lot of students drawn to the trades. For many, it’s the combination of good pay, almost guaranteed jobs and easily transferable skill that proves irresistibly attractive.
“We have advisers that work with students, sometimes in group sessions, to help you create your program for what classes you should take and how many classes you need to take each semester,” Alsup said. “We help you get registered and get ready for college. We’ll help you get your books and help show you how to get your student ID.”
For students interested in construction, MATC mainly offers technical diplomas that can often be obtained in a year’s time. Aspirants to a particular trade can enter either through a union – which might arrange for their studies to be sponsored by a unionized contractor – or by the non-union route. MATC offers a long list of financial-aid options to help pay for tuition.
Alsup said admissions officials take into account no single criteria or test when deciding whether a prospective student would be a good fit for a particular program. Rather, they and their colleagues consider a variety of factors while also taking steps to prevent outside needs and difficulties – a lack of transportation or child care, for instance – from keeping someone from pursuing a course of study.
Instructors in the construction program have all had at least five years’ experience working in whatever trade they are teaching. They not only impart basic knowledge and principles to their classes but also give hands-on demonstrations and help students put various techniques and skills to practical use in lab settings.
“I always tell students they need to challenge the instructors, so they can get those little extra lessons and bits of advice that will make you look like an expert the first day on the job,” Alsup said.
Beyond the instructors, every trades program is overseen by an advisory committee composed of experts representing various parts of the industry, both from the union and nonunion sides. The panels meet at least twice a year and make it their business to keep MATC teachers and faculty apprised of the latest trends and developments in construction, manufacturing and transportation.
Of course, to really have an influence on students, it’s often necessary to reach out to them well before they ever set foot on MATC’s campus. That’s where Marwill Santiago and his team of recruiters come in.
As manager of recruitment at MATC, Santiago has a recruitment representative assigned to every high school within MATC’s district boundaries, which contain all of Milwaukee and Ozaukee counties and part of Washington County. Santiago said members of his team visit every school at least three times a year. They initially provide basic information about course offerings and then follow up with details on financial aid and admissions. Some students take advantage of dual enrollment, which allows them to pursue credits at MATC even as they are completing high school.
Santiago said that, despite endeavors in recent years to dispel long-standing prejudices about construction and manufacturing work, biases remain prevalent. For too many students, it’s still a revelation the first time they walk into a hands-on lab at MATC’s campus and discover – instead of the dirty shop floor and ill-maintained equipment they might have expected – a clean, sleek and modern manufacturing setting.
“A lot of it is just fighting the stigma of what it means to work in the trades and manufacturing,” Santiago said.
Of course, much of the appeal to construction comes from its good pay and employment prospects. Santiago said he has heard high school guidance counselors express regret about their career choices after learning that a first-year trades worker can make as much as $60,000 annually.
As far as employment goes, Alsup noted that 94% of all students who graduate from MATC with a technical diploma either find a job or are on their way to pursuing a four-year degree within six months.
“These are great careers,” Alsup said. “People are making good money. They are living the lives they had always dreamed of living. And it all started at MATC.”