Never been a better time to become an apprentice in Wisconsin

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By Erin Eagan

Apprenticeships are a proven pathway to employment, providing Americans with the skills and knowledge they need to land good-paying jobs.

In the past few years, the U.S. Department of Labor awarded $175 million in grants to 46 applicants across the country to develop or expand apprenticeships in high-growth industries over the next five years. It was the largest apprenticeship investment in U.S. history. The grants undoubtedly helped the US add a record number of new apprenticeship opportunities. 

A national model

Previously an unregulated system, in 1911 Wisconsin passed the country’s first apprenticeship law. Since that time, Wisconsin has solidified its position as a nationwide leader in apprenticeship programs.

“There are some things that we do very different (in Wisconsin) than you see anywhere else in the country,” says Todd Kiel, apprenticeship manager of Northeastern Wisconsin Technical College. “We do the paid-related instruction, which is unique to Wisconsin. Other states have instruction, but it does not have to be paid.”

According to the DWD, there are currently 2,767 employers with apprenticeship programs and 8,500 apprentices in Wisconsin. Of those, over 6,000 are students in the Wisconsin technical college system taking part in more than 40 apprenticeship programs in the industrial, construction and service industries.

In the last few years, along with an increased commitment from the federal government, state leaders have taken significant steps to continue the growth of apprenticeships in Wisconsin, including:

Wisconsin Apprenticeship Growth and Enhancement Strategies (WAGE$) project — In 2015, the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development (DWD) received a $5 million grant to enhance its apprenticeship program into the year 2020. The DWD's Bureau of Apprenticeship Standards (BAS) has invested the grant funds in the Wisconsin Apprenticeship Growth and Enhancement Strategies (WAGE$) project. WAGE$ registers new apprenticeships in high-growth occupations in the manufacturing, health care and IT industries, and the project will also expand upon other existing programs. With the grant money received, 1,000 new apprentices and 542 additional incumbent workers statewide are undergoing training and skills development within a five-year period.

Tools of the Trade scholarships — While learning on the job, apprentices earn modest wages and have limited options for financial aid to help with program tuition. This can make it challenging for them to cover the rest of their expenses, including tools, equipment and clothing necessary for certain apprenticeships. Depending on the trade, the cost of tools alone can stand in the way of program completion.

Ascendium (formerly called Great Lakes Higher Education Guaranty Corp.) and WTCS have come to the rescue, awarding $1,500 Tools of the Trade Apprentice Scholarships to help apprentices at Wisconsin’s technical colleges who struggle to cover these out-of-pocket expenses. Ascendium has awarded over $900,000 in scholarships to construction and industrial trade apprentices attending WTCS colleges.

“Historically, there hasn’t been a lot of help for apprentices that were struggling financially,” adds Kiel.  “I think Tools of the Trade has had a good, positive impact.”

Youth apprenticeships — Wisconsin was one of the first states to operate a youth apprenticeship program. Established in 1991, the program is part of a state-led school-to-work initiative, which offers one- to two-year apprenticeships to 2,500 high school juniors and seniors in one of 10 career clusters. The program is overseen by the state Department of Workforce Development.

As youth apprentices, students are paid for their work on the job, and, upon completion, they receive certificates of occupational proficiency, and potentially some college credit as well. The Wisconsin Bureau of Apprenticeship Standards recently integrated the youth program with the state’s Registered Apprenticeship program, which helps ease the transition after high school graduation into Registered Apprenticeship, and provides significant new value to students enrolling in Youth Apprenticeship. 

Continued growth

As a country, we need to continue chipping away at the skills gap that persists nationwide. With the continued growth of apprenticeships in our state, Wisconsin’s technical colleges are doing their part. Over 300 occupations are now recognized by the State of Wisconsin as apprenticeable with new ones added as industries and technologies change, as well as in expanding service industries, such as insurance, information technology, financial and health care.

But Kiel thinks more can be done. “I think we have to better connect with employers,” he explains. “We’ve always thought we needed to connect with the high schools and I’m not sure that’s the right avenue for us. I can go to all kinds of high schools and if I tell people they’re going to get paid to go to school and that they’re going to have a career, then I can line people up around the corner.”

He emphasizes, however, that there needs to be employers willing to take on the apprentices. “We need to start with employers and show them what the advantages are — convince them that they don’t necessarily have to hire people with all of the skills they want. They can apprentice them, and we can get them to a place where they can work." It's a win-win all around. 

If an apprenticeship is something you might be interested in, talk to your local WTCS apprentice coordinator for more information.