Kate Olson went to UW-Madison to study civil engineering and construction management.
After graduation, she pursued her profession for more than two years before deciding to train to become a carpenter.
On Thursday, Olson stood under a red and white awning and welcomed more than 300 high school students from four counties to J.P. Cullen’s Construction Career Fair.
Masons and concrete finishers, iron workers, electricians, heavy equipment operators—all the major players in the construction field—were there and eager to tell students and teachers about their work.
Students learned about the trades and participated in hands-on activities, such as working in a portable welding booth, brick laying and pouring concrete.
This is the fifth construction career fair held at J.P. Cullen, said Joe Schwengels, internship coordinator for the company.
“The No. 1 goal is to highlight the quality careers available in the trades,” Schwengels said.
Many students and their parents are unaware such careers can provide good wages and benefits—better wages than many jobs that require college degrees.
Pete Stern, the apprentice coordinator for Iron Workers Local 383, echoed Schwengels’ comments.
Stern wished more parents would have attended the career fair to see what opportunities are available.
For the past two to three decades, school counselors and leaders have tended to push students toward college, Stern said.
“I don’t think school counselors realized that these are family-supporting jobs,” Stern said.
Apprentice iron workers start at about $21 an hour.
He thinks attitudes are starting to change. The student debt crisis is forcing students and families to rethink their post-high school plans.
Stern has seen more apprentices in their late 20s and early 30s with college degrees coming through his office door. They couldn’t find jobs in their fields or found their chosen professions didn’t suit them.
Olson enjoyed her work in construction management, but she said the hands-on component just appealed to her more.
“I just enjoyed the field side. I liked the activity and the camaraderie that happens when you’re working together,” Olson said.
She picked carpentry because it allows her to see a project to completion.
“Carpenters are one of the trades that are at the site from the very beginning of the project to the very end of the project,” Olson said. “I like to be able to see all phases.”
Olson likes the materials she works with, and the work itself.
“These are the kind of things that I grew up doing,” said Olson, who grew up on a small farm outside Orfordville.
Why aren’t more young people going into the trades?
“I think college is seen, culturally, as a sign of success,” Olson said. “And that’s just not a great message.”
That’s a message companies such as J.P. Cullen are trying to change, Schwengels said.
The Cullen family, which still runs the business, started an apprenticeship committee more than two decades ago. It was an effort to connect skilled trades people with high school students and teachers.
In addition, the company is committed to its own apprenticeship program, Schwengels said. It hires and trains about six youth apprentices each year. Those students become part of the state Department of Workforce Development Youth Apprenticeship Program, which runs apprenticeships in professions ranging from the construction trades to health science.
It’s not an easy path.
In construction apprenticeships, students start during their junior years in high school. Each apprentice is assigned a mentor, and the two-year program involves 1,350 hours of paid, work-based learning and six semesters of related classroom instruction.