Tools for their trades

For a lot of people in the workplace, their employers supply everything they need to do their jobs.

Sure, you may bring your own stapler (because your trusty, old Swingline doesn’t bind up as much as the alternative), but generally speaking you aren’t required to bring your own computer, phone, paperclips, pens, and pencils to the office every day.

However, that’s rarely the case for people in construction and other industrial trades, who typically have to outfit their own toolbox according to the needs of their profession. The financial burden can be significant, especially for student apprentices just starting out in the industry.

To fill the gap in many apprentices’ wallets, Great Lakes Higher Education Guaranty Corporation started the Tools of the Trade Apprentice Scholarship program in 2013. That first year, Great Lakes awarded $20,000 worth of $1,000 scholarships to apprentices at the Milwaukee Area Technical College. Now in its third year, the program is set to hand out $200,000 in scholarships to students from all of Wisconsin’s 16 technical colleges.

The scholarship program began as a way to honor retiring Great Lakes board member Jim Elliot, says Ben Dobner, director of education grantmaking at Great Lakes, who had been very involved with construction and the industrial trades in Milwaukee.

“We know that apprentices have a lot of expensive equipment and tools, too, and they aren’t eligible for federal financial aid, so we wanted to help them out as well,” Dobner notes.

The introduction of the apprentice scholarship program at Milwaukee Area Technical College in 2013 had the desired impact: 95% of recipients either completed or continued their training programs the following semester. By upping the number of scholarships to 200 this year, even more apprentices will get help they need to achieve professional certification, have rewarding careers, and meet employer needs for skilled workers in the construction and industrial trades.

Victoria Melius, a maintenance mechanic/millwright apprentice from Fox Valley Technical College, used her scholarship to buy metric tools. She works at Fives Giddings & Lewis building large machinery.

Last year, Madison College had the most applicants out of any of the 16 schools in the Wisconsin Technical College System (WTCS). Great Lakes awarded $1,000 checks to 50 of Madison College’s apprentices in January 2015, assistance that is especially important as apprentices learn on the job and prepare to enter the workforce as full-fledged tradespeople.

“Apprentices encounter a great many startup costs when they begin their indenture terms,” says Jim Cook, apprenticeship manager at Madison College, “including tools, work clothes, transportation, tuition, and books. In addition, all apprentices start off earning a small hourly wage, calculated as a fraction of what journeyworkers in their given field are earning. Add to the fact that the average age of a new apprentice across Wisconsin is 29 years old, which means they likely have a family to support, and the economic burden of starting an apprenticeship can be quite heavy.”

In many ways, the Tools of the Trade scholarships can be a career saver, which is especially important in construction and the trades, where there’s currently a shortage of qualified workers.

“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 to finish their program because of the high costs of equipment, tools, and supplies that they need,” Dobner says.

“While some employers might provide power tools and other, more expensive equipment on the job, the basic tools used in each trade have to be purchased and maintained personally by the apprentices,” explains Cook. “The cost for a set of basic tools varies, 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 runs 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.

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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.

According to Dobner, Great Lakes worked with the WTCS to develop the scholarship program and determine an ideal monetary award. Applications for a new round of Tools of the Trade scholarships have already been distributed to eligible apprentices by their program advisors, and the application deadline is Oct. 17, 2015. A WTCS committee will select the recipients, and Great Lakes will issue individuals $1,000 checks in January 2016.

Locally, training new tradespeople and getting them through their apprenticeship means even more because construction is driving a lot of the forward economic momentum throughout the greater Madison area.

Anton Levra, a steamfitting apprentice at Milwaukee Area Technical College and two-time scholarship recipient, used proceeds to pay tuition and buy tools and work clothing. He works for J.M. Brennan (as of February 2015).

“The employment outlook for the construction and manufacturing trades in Madison and the extended area are outstanding,” Cook notes. “For employers, it’s actually a crisis — there simply aren’t enough entry-level workers to fill all of the available openings. Trades that typically see 100 applicants per year (in Dane and the surrounding counties) are now seeing a dozen or so.”

Cook says the hardest hit construction trades at present are ironworkers, electricians, plumbers, sheet metal workers, brickmasons, cement masons, and laborers. In fact, none of the construction trades are contracting — commercial buildings are still erected by the same type of high-skilled trades workers who did the job 100 years ago.

“Until they figure out a way to assemble a huge commercial building inside a factory, ship it to its location, and plop it onto a foundation, the construction trades will likely continue to thrive,” explains Cook. “Technology may have made construction safer, quicker, and more efficient, but much of that technology is complicated and requires extensive training methods, foremost of which is apprenticeship.

“These occupations provide some of the most stable and consistent work in the economy,” continues Cook. “The workers who practice the trades invariably stay put, contribute heavily to the local tax base, and spend liberally within the local economy. They are one of the bedrock foundations of the local marketplace. In addition, because they make a good living, they make good citizens — they have the time to participate in the activities of their communities, churches, local government, and school districts. And, most of them are inclined to do so.”

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