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Building a future for apprentices

Funds help cover cost of equipment, tools, and clothing to keep apprentices on the path to completing their training and advancing to in-demand careers.

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Whatever equipment most of us need to do our jobs — computer (desktop and/or laptop), phone, office supplies, etc. — is supplied by our employer. Honestly, other than investing in a large, insulated travel coffee mug, what was the last crucial piece of equipment that’s an absolute requirement for you to perform your job to a high degree that you purchased yourself?

For those workers in the industrial trades, however, most if not all of their tools, protective clothing, and other equipment must be purchased out of pocket. That might be manageable once they’ve landed a well-paid permanent gig, but the cost of being an apprentice is high, with steep expenses for clothing, tools, and equipment on modest wages, and limited options for financial aid. Even the most motivated apprentices are at risk of abandoning their training when faced with these financial obstacles.

It’s the main reason Great Lakes Higher Education Corporation & Affiliates recently awarded a record amount in scholarships to construction and industrial trades apprentices attending each of the 16 Wisconsin Technical College System (WTCS) institutions.

Started in 2013, the Tools of the Trade Apprentice Scholarship program awarded $20,000 worth of $1,000 scholarships to apprentices at the Milwaukee Area Technical College. Now in its fifth year, the program recently awarded a record $300,000 in scholarships to 200 apprentice students across the state, including 44 at Madison College — the most of any tech college in Wisconsin. Each apprentice received a $1,500 scholarship.

Tools of the Trade scholarships help apprentices with financial need purchase expensive tools, clothing, and equipment required by their trades, so they can complete their programs and secure good jobs.

The scholarships have proven remarkably effective at helping apprentices stay on the path to completing their training. Since 2013, 94% of recipients have either completed or continued their training the following semester. This past year that number was even a notch higher at 95%, according to Amy Kerwin, vice president of community investments at Great Lakes.

“First and foremost, we recognize that for many apprentices working in the skilled trades, there aren’t a lot of opportunities for financial aid,” says Kerwin. “If you think about more traditional scholarship opportunities, they typically leave out students who aren’t necessarily earning a two-year degree, and that’s the space that apprentices fall in. Coupled with the lack of scholarships, especially for those working in the manufacturing, construction, and industrial trades, those students are required to purchase pretty expensive equipment and clothing.”

For apprentices struggling to make ends meet, the cost of something as basic as a pair of steel-toe boots can stand in the way of program completion.

The cost for a set of basic tools depends, of course, on the trade and the vendor/manufacturer, but the average range for a good set of tools that won’t break or wear out quickly can run from $500 to $750.

Typical tools in the construction trades include a tape measure, hammer, set of screwdrivers, set of pliers, set of wrenches, flashlight, and toolbox or pouch. In addition, most trades require personal protection clothing (PPC) and equipment such as fire-retardant shirts/pants, steel-toed boots, and the ubiquitous hard hat.

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