Workforce department lays more groundwork for engineering, construction careers
By Ethan Duran
High school students across the state will have new occupational pathways into architecture and construction to choose from this school year, Gov. Tony Evers’ office announced in late August.
Teens will be able to apprentice for jobs like gas distribution technicians, heavy equipment operators and utilities electrical technicians in addition to other construction jobs. The Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development said 14 career pathways were added to the state youth apprenticeship program, including several new construction apprenticeships.
While more jobs were added in August, the construction industry signaled a lack of qualified workers: 91 percent of construction firms reported trouble finding workers to fill craft positions, a survey by the Associated General Contractors of America showed. With apprenticeships, kids will have more chances to join the talent-hungry construction industry in Wisconsin and beyond.
Historically, construction trades apprenticeships were the driving force behind apprenticeships in the Badger State.
The DWD said it modernized its framework for 75 Youth Apprenticeship program pathways after working with school consortiums, employers and the Wisconsin Technical College system.
Pathways are meant to help industries like construction, health sciences, science, engineering and transportation. There were 321 public school districts within the state program that had students enrolled for the 2021-2022 school year.
A mass exodus of people leaving their jobs during the pandemic left a burning hole in the construction workforce, DWD Bureau of Apprenticeship Standards Director David Polk said. Creating an employment pipeline from high schools to construction companies is the industry’s latest shift to rebuild a skilled workforce.
“Now the industry is trying to keep up with the number of individuals leaving or retiring from the skill trades and trying to combat that by bringing in and onboarding individuals to replace them,” Polk said. “There’s a historic low of unemployment and not a lot of people to choose or recruit from. Companies want to grab people while they’re younger.”
High school juniors and seniors who enroll in an apprenticeship build skills, earn licenses and college credits in a recruitment model that gives youth a stable income out of high school, Polk said.
Some credentials learned in an apprenticeship can be used across the entire state of Wisconsin, or even in other states depending on the license.
“We love to partner with youth,” Polk said. “The work we put in to develop these competencies isn’t fruitless. There’s a big onboarding period when the school semester begins, and it never hinders kids’ high school progress. From onboarding, they become paid employees of a company.”
A graduate of the plumbing apprenticeship program himself, Polk said apprentices are not an “or” alternative for high schoolers moving onto college.
“There’s plenty of opportunity to do both,” he added. Employers hope to retain their apprentices after graduation and offer to reimburse their college tuition so they can be upscaled into management.
Federal money for key infrastructure projects like roads, bridges, ports and broadband has also pushed companies to reach out for skilled workers.
“It’s an infrastructure investment, where a lot of construction work is needed. It needs effective recruitment,” Polk added.
The DWD’s process to modernize its youth apprenticeship program allowed more local companies to participate, which connects youth to careers they might not have been able to discover before, Southwest Wisconsin Workforce Development Board Job Developer Dana Leikness said.
“By expanding into new industries, students have more opportunities to explore and discover careers they might not have been able to participate in prior to the modernization process,” she said.
The 2021-22 year for the DWD was a record for young apprenticeship recruitment, with 6,408 total youth apprenticeships in Wisconsin and 710 of those young apprentices in the construction trades, DWD data showed. The state has a total of 14,750 ongoing apprenticeships in total, including youth apprentices and registered apprentices. The last record for the total number of apprentices was 15,000 in 2001.
“We have to make sure our kids have apprenticeship opportunities and different pathways to get the jobs and skills training they need to join our state’s workforce,” Gov. Evers said in a statement.
“These latest youth apprenticeship pathways will help strengthen the connections among employers, educators, students, and communities, provide new opportunities for our young people to build their futures, and foster our own home-grown talent in critical industries that support local economies across our state.”