Kids Building Wisconsin gives tykes a chance to imagine a constructive career

Many baby boomers and Gen Xers were raised on Tonka trucks, Lincoln Logs, and Erector sets, all of which suggested to kids that building things was fun.

As those once-ubiquitous toys have given way to video games and Disney DVDs, the skills gap in the construction trades has continued to widen.

Coincidence? Maybe, but the folks behind Kids Building Wisconsin think that giving children a sneak peek at the construction industry might plant a few seeds to get them interested in the trades later on.

“It’s not a hard sell, it’s just ‘come out and have fun and kind of see what we do,’ and at the end of the day, if people are interested by that, that’s great.” — Patrick Stern, Kids Building Wisconsin

Originally launched and sponsored by Fitchburg’s Tri-North Builders, Kids Building Wisconsin debuted last year after Tri-North staff members began brainstorming ideas for addressing the skills gap in the construction trades.

“As an industry, we have an employment issue where there aren’t enough people coming into the industry,” said Patrick Stern, president of the board of Kids Building Wisconsin and an account controller with Tri-North. “We know this isn’t a short-term fix, but it was a way to get families, kids of all ages, to see that construction is something that’s out there, in a fun way.”

Last year, the event drew around 1,500 kids, and this year organizers are hoping to top 2,000. The event, which will take place from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. May 9 at McKee Farms Park in Fitchburg, currently has 20 exhibitors and counting, up from 13 in its inaugural year.

Last year, said Stern, the event featured a simulator that’s used to train operators to control equipment such as backhoes and road graders. Stern noted that it was an easy way to get today’s kids, raised on video games, to connect with the industry.

Other activities included clay pot painting, a “chalk city,” and a carpentry contest.

This year, said Stern, some of the exhibitors are stepping up their game.

“The metalworkers are going to bring in a self-contained welding unit, so the kids can actually weld in a box where they’re safe from it,” said Stern.

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All the kids who attend the event will also be sent home with gifts, including a hardhat, a Home Depot apron, and whatever other swag the exhibitors make available.

But above all, Stern hopes kids walk away from the event with a smile on their faces.

“It’s not a hard sell, it’s just ‘come out and have fun and kind of see what we do,’ and at the end of the day, if people are interested by that, that’s great, and if they’re not, at least they had fun at our event,” said Stern.

Building interest

While Tri-North was originally the driving force behind the event, today it’s run by a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, and anyone in the industry is invited to exhibit or become a sponsor.

Sponsors come from various industries, most of which are at least tangentially connected to construction. The organization continues to solicit sponsors, which will be included in the event’s promotional materials.

The organization is also supported by a variety of industry leaders who recognize the vital importance of promoting the construction trades.

“On our board, we’ve got a nice industry cross-section,” said Stern. “We’ve got people from Tri-North, Cullen, Axley, M3, so you know we’re kind of casting our net out there so it doesn’t look like one company is putting it on. This is a good-for-the-industry event.”

But while it’s entering just its second year, Kids Building Wisconsin is poised to begin rebuilding some of what’s been lost over the past decade and before.

“Our industry was hit particularly hard during the recession, so that’s going to clearly have a knock-on effect,” said Stern. “One, we had a lot of retirements during that period, and two, nobody entering. So you have at least, I’d say, a four-year gap, and that’s on top of what we were already seeing before in the shortages because of perception problems or whatever other reasons people weren’t entering [the construction trades] at the level that we already saw we needed for the future. … So I think it’s going to be a decade or more before we get fired back up to where we need to be.”

Kids Building Wisconsin is free and open to the public. For more information, click here.

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