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.

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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Plugging the (body) gap

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 and body gaps are also a national issue. With the ever-present demand for skilled employees, federal and state lawmakers are focusing on apprenticeship as a tool to meet the need. Most apprenticeship programs combine up to five years of classroom instruction and on-the-job training. With modest wages and limited financial aid options, the Tools of the Trade scholarships fill a need.

“Without a doubt [the body gap among skilled workers] is part of why we’re offering these scholarships,” explains Kerwin. “Quite honestly, that’s why we’ve targeted the scholarship toward those industrial trades fields, versus making the scholarship available to all of the apprentice programs that are offered through the technical college system.”

Charles Walker of Park Falls, Wisconsin, is a plumbing apprentice at Nicolet Area Technical College and a single dad of two daughters, ages 7 and 10. His $1,500 scholarship will help him purchase tools needed to become a master plumber. “This scholarship is an investment in my future and my family’s future,” he says. “Investing in my education is the best investment I can make.”

There are few eligibility requirements for the Tools of the Trade scholarships. 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.

Kerwin says while at this time the Tools for the Trade scholarships are just a one-time, $1,500 scholarship, that’s not to say a student couldn’t re-apply and receive the scholarship again down the road if the need is great enough.

Based on the program’s success in Wisconsin, it was also expanded to Ohio last year. “We saw similar results in Ohio to what we see in Wisconsin,” notes Kerwin. “[Expanding to other states] is something we would consider. We want to start by looking at: Is there a body gap or a need for those positions to be filled? And then find a partner who would work with us to review the applications and determine that it’s a good fit, but that’s exactly why we brought it to Ohio because of the success that we saw in Wisconsin.”

“Our scholarships help technical college students overcome financial barriers and complete highly skilled training programs so they can advance to in-demand careers,” says Richard D. George, president and CEO of Great Lakes. “We’re proud to help Wisconsin’s hardworking apprentices build brighter futures.”

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