Apprentice scholarships lay foundation for Madison’s future builders

Jobs virtually guaranteed after graduation with the strong possibility to rake in six figure salaries.

For a lot of recent college graduates that might sound like a pipedream. For recent graduates of Madison College’s construction trades apprenticeship programs it’s a reality — provided they can foot the bill for expensive tools, equipment, and clothing necessary for their trade while they’re still learning.

Employers are in need of skilled workers now more than ever. The Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development projects job growth at a 21% increase for construction jobs and a 15% percent in the industrial trades through 2022. This skills gap also is a national issue, with the Obama administration prioritizing apprenticeship training in an attempt to close the gap and help more Americans move to middle class jobs.

The 16 colleges in the Wisconsin Technical College System (WTCS) are taking action by preparing a new generation with the skills and credentials needed for success in the trades. “Our colleges are proven partners in developing and advancing the talent Wisconsin’s employers need to be successful,” says 
Dr. Morna K. Foy, WTCS president.

But before they can achieve journeyworker status and fill good jobs that are available now, apprentices must complete up to five years of specialized training and classroom instruction. Apprentices earn modest wages on the job and have limited options for financial aid to help with program tuition. They also are required to purchase expensive tools and clothing for their trades. 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 hardhat.

Financial foundation

In order to help more students cover out-of-pocket expenses like tuition, tools, and clothing, and complete their programs, WTCS and Great Lakes Higher Education Guaranty Corp. began offering $1,000 Tools of the Trade scholarships in 2013 for WTCS apprentices in the construction and industrial trades.

“We know for apprentices, because they’re not eligible for federal financial aid — or state financial aid in Wisconsin — it’s even more difficult for them to finish their program because of the high costs of equipment, tools, and supplies that they need,” Ben Dobner, director of education grantmaking at Great Lakes, says.

There are few eligibility requirements for the Tools of the Trade scholarships, notes Dobner. Applicants must be a student in a construction or industrial apprenticeship program that is operated through one of the 16 Wisconsin technical colleges, and they must complete an application and letter of recommendation form. Beyond that, the only other requirement is the applicant’s income needs to be within 300% of the federal poverty guidelines for their family size.

This past academic year, Great Lakes awarded $200,000 in scholarships to 200 construction and industrial trade apprentices attending 15 WTCS colleges. Locally, Madison College boasted the greatest number of scholarship recipients in the state — 45, out of approximately 810 apprenticeship students in the construction trades at the college, notes Denise Reimer, dean of Applied Science, Engineering, and Technology at Madison College.

Recipients of the scholarships include military veterans, single parents, recent high school graduates, and displaced workers. A total of 390 scholarships have been awarded to apprentices across the state over the three years of the Tools of the Trade $1,000 Apprentice Scholarship program.

Scott Vest, a second-year ironworker apprentice at Madison College, has an apprenticeship with Findorff and is currently working at the Anchor Bank construction site on the Capitol Square.

Apprentices are using their scholarships in a variety of ways. Scott Vest of Evansville is a second-year ironworker apprentice at Madison College, as well as a father of two and the sole income earner after his wife lost her job. One of his teachers recommended that he apply for a Great Lakes scholarship to help ease the burden. “Receiving the scholarship means a lot,” Vest says. “Anything that’s bettering my family is bettering me.”

“We see that these scholarship help our students with expenses that are not covered by tuition, which can be very significant,” adds Reimer. “Those expenses can be barrier for students to continue in the program. If they didn’t get the scholarship, it most likely wouldn’t extend their studies, it would stop them from moving forward completely.

“We also see that when our students receive a scholarship they’re even more motivated because now they know that someone else is investing in them,” Reimer notes. “It boosts their confidence.”

According to Richard D. George, president and CEO of Great Lakes, 96% of Tools of the Trade scholarship recipients either complete or continue their training toward careers in the construction and industrial trades.

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Help wanted

Reimer notes the Tools of the Trade scholarships aren’t just important to Madison College’s apprentice students. They’re also essential to helping the construction trades fill a widening employment gap locally.

“I like to say all the cranes around Madison are my economic predictor,” Reimer laughs. “Our demand for apprenticeships is huge.”

In fact, Madison College received a $5 million Blueprint for Prosperity grant in 2014 from the state Department of Workforce Development to expand its waitlist and high-demand programs and the apprenticeship trades were one of those areas the college expanded.

In April 15 report to the state on the grant’s progress, Reimer notes an additional 363 students were served and four full-time faculty members were hired at Madison College because of the grant funds.

Locally, Reimer says the highest demand trades seem to be electricians and plumbers. Madison College is in the process of hiring a full-time plumbing faculty position to support the growth in the industry, but it’s hard to attract people to teaching when they’re making six figures in their trade, she notes.

“The skills gap that we hear about in manufacturing, construction, and transportation is certainly what we’re experiencing with finding faculty, as well,” Reimer says. “It’s a great problem to have because it means people have got jobs. These apprentices don’t just leave our college with a job; they’re in college with a job. That’s where they’re learning the important skills to support our community.”

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