Rebounding construction industry looks to apprentices to fill void

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Jim Leute
Saturday, April 12, 2014

JANESVILLE—Paul Wesling and Nick Tibbott work in different fields, but they are examples of a growing trend in the Wisconsin construction industry.

Both are apprentices, filling positions employers and industry observers say are critical to an industry sector that's growing and in need of skilled workers.

It wasn't all that long ago when Wisconsin contractors were suffering the effects of a national recession. Many Baby Boomers retired from their skilled trades jobs just as many younger workers left the industry, tired of lengthy layoffs.

Work that once was hard to come by now is more available, and construction companies are facing the revival with a shortage of skilled workers.

Many are returning to the Wisconsin's apprenticeship program, which was launched in 1911 as the first of its kind in the nation.

“The industry really struggled for the last five or six years,” said Kelly Tourdot, vice president of the Wisconsin chapter of Associated Builders & Contractors, a trade association for the construction industry.

“In the last year and one-half to two years, it's steadily risen. Contractors are busy and moving forward.”

Tourdot said her organization added more than 230 apprentices for the 2013-14 school year, which is much higher than previous years.

Paul Wesling was not one of those.

Instead, the 32-year-old Clinton resident will next month wrap up a five-year electrical apprenticeship program.

Wesling works for Jakes Electric, an electrical contracting company in Clinton that specializes in electrical installation and contracting, control systems, automation control, custom designed software and control panels and hazard monitoring installation.

He's one of 11 apprentices at the company and is poised to write his own ticket, owner Brian Jacobs said.

“I told my guys four or five years ago--when I saw the low numbers of apprentices--to hang in there,” said Jacobs, himself a graduate of the apprenticeship program. “I told them things would change and there was going to be a shortage, and the shortage is going to get worse before it gets better.

“I told them that they would be able to set their own wage, and, as an employer, I'd have to pay it.”

Apprenticeship is a structured system of training designed to prepare individuals for skilled occupations. It combines classroom instruction with on-the-job learning under the supervision of experienced journey workers.

Apprentices are sponsored by employers, employer associations or labor/management groups that can hire and train in a working situation. Employers pay wages and often contribute heavily for education costs.

Apprentices typically graduate their programs as journeymen with bigger paychecks from their employers.

“I preach to my guys to complete the program,” Jacobs said. “As an employer with two people sitting in front of me and all things being equal, I'll hire the person that completed the apprenticeship program.

“That shows me how committed they are.”

Wesling said he never really considered abandoning the apprenticeship program during the lean years.

“There's always going to be a need for the skilled trades at some point, if you're able to stick it out,” he said. “It's been a long trek, but I had a great teacher at Blackhawk, a great learning environment.

“The apprenticeship program is definitely worth the time and effort it takes to go through it.”

Nick Tibbott, a 26-year-old employee of the Janesville-based J.P. Cullen, is taking a slightly different route through the apprenticeship program.

An Iowa native, Tibbott graduated in 2010 with a construction management degree from UW-Platteville. He then hired on with Cullen as a site engineer.

But Tibbott prefers to be in the field, so he enrolled in the apprenticeship program. He's in his second year of a four-year carpenter apprentice program.

“I decided that I wanted to go the superintendent, field management route,” said Tibbott, who is currently working for Cullen on a Milwaukee hospital project. “To do that, I knew that getting out into the field would be a valuable experience.

“The program puts me in the field with a great group of guys who have an awful lot of experience. With my degree, I could have worked toward project management or become an estimator, which is great, but I'd rather be at a point where I'm in the field watching the project develop.”

After his apprenticeship ends, Tibbott hopes to become a journeyman carpenter and eventually move on to foreman and project superintendent.

As a college graduate, he's got a different vantage point to view apprenticeships.

“After four years in the apprenticeship program, you can be making the same money as someone who graduated with a four-year degree,” he said. “You can come out of high school with zero construction experience and start making decent money with benefits and retirement.”

Joe Schwengels is a project superintendent and leads Cullen's in-house apprenticeship program.

“During the recession years, work slowed, and a fair number of trades people retired early, while others just left the industry,” he said. “As we gain work, we're seeing the need for more trades people.”

Apprentices at the Janesville company work as carpenters, bricklayers, laborers, ironworkers, millwrights, operating engineers and concrete finishers.

Historically, the Cullen committee has targeted high schools to tell the apprenticeship story.

Schwengels said that audience would be expanded to prospects in their mid or even late 20s.

“We need to get the word out why we need to do this, that there are lots of opportunities and good-paying jobs,” he said.

Cullen hopes to double its stable of 12 apprentices, he said.

“You earn while you learn, and much of it is hands-on in the field.”

Tourdot said her organization sells the state's apprenticeship program as a career path. A big challenge, she said, is convincing young people to look into apprenticeships after being pointed toward the four-year college route most of their lives.

Beyond high schools, the trade group is reaching out to veterans groups, college grads without jobs and other people who aren't happy at desk jobs.

With younger workers jumping ship and Baby Boomers retired—or soon to retire—the industry needs to fill a void, she said.

“We're seeing a new workforce coming into the trades,” she said. “We're trying to get workers into the trade skills.

“The apprenticeship program leads to family supporting careers with good money and no student debt.”

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