Jose Abreu was looking for an opportunity.

It knocked while he attended a building trades training fair earlier this year put on by the Wisconsin Regional Training Partnership (WRTP).

Abreu, who moved to Madison in 2002 from his native Venezuela, earned a bachelor’s degree in computer engineering prior to coming to America, but he wanted a job that involved physical labor.

Mike Polster, labor manager at General Heating and Air Conditioning, 3002 Perry St., goes to many such events looking for talent.

“It just so happened that Jose stood out in the crowd that day,” Polster said. Abreu started work July 3. He hopes to be accepted into and work his way through a five-year apprenticeship program to become a journeyman sheet metal worker. Right now, he’s just starting to learn the basics.

Abreu’s story has yet to be fully written, but both employer and employee are happy with how it has started. However, many come to such events without having met minimum requirements to work in the trades, Polster said. To be eligible, participants must be at least 18, have earned a high school diploma or passed the GED, have a valid driver’s license and pass a pre-employment drug test.

That’s where WRTP’s Building Industry Group Skilled Trades Employment Program (BIG STEP) comes in, said Bill Clingan, who helps screen candidates for the program and point them in the right direction if they don’t meet requirements.

WRTP/BIG STEP opened a Madison office in 2014. Another has also opened in Minnesota’s Twin Cities. The program — which is a nonprofit workforce development intermediary that links workers to industry-driven, family-supporting jobs — started in Milwaukee in 1992.

The WRTP/BIG STEP model starts with jobs, Clingan said. He meets with the trade unions and construction companies to scope out their future needs and then goes about trying to fill those needs.

Other key services offered include:

  • Certificate training courses created with input from employers and unions.
  • A pre-apprenticeship tutoring program.
  • Funding to cover the cost of the training programs.

In 2013, WRTP served 1,943 people in Milwaukee. Of that group, 939 received job training, and 888 were placed in jobs with an average wage of $16.92 an hour. Of the people served, 17 percent were between 18 to 24, while 13 percent were women and 73 percent were people of color, of which 74 percent reported a household income of less than $25,000.

Dave Branson, executive director of the Building and Construction Trades Council of South Central Wisconsin, said the construction industry is booming right now.

A lot of jobs are out there, he said. “All of the trades are looking. So it is becoming increasingly more difficult to find qualified people that want to work construction.” But with a limited number of potential employees, he said, “they’re all competing for the same people.”

The United States Department of Labor predicts there will be a 22 percent increase in the number of job openings in the construction trades from 2012 to 2022. That compares to an 11 percent hike in all other jobs.

“The last few years with the recession that we had, some of the older building trades workers decided to retire because there wasn’t much work, and some of the younger ones had to go and take other jobs and they haven’t all come back,” Branson said. But with the increase in construction, he said, “all of the trades have been actively trying to recruit people.”

A disconnect seen

As Dane County executive, Joe Parisi is in a good position to connect the dots between separate issues. He saw there is a need for construction workers. He is also aware of racial disparities and lack of job opportunity for people of color.

“It just didn’t take long for it to become crystal clear to me that there is some kind of disconnect here,” Parisi said.

In 2013, he set up a meeting with representatives from the Urban League, Nehemiah Community Development Group, the construction trades, Madison Area Technical College and local contractors to examine the problem.

What they found is that a lot of people were finding jobs by word of mouth.

“The construction grapevine was not one that was connecting with a lot of people who were looking for work, so we realized that we had to be very deliberate about expanding that grapevine and making sure everyone knows about those jobs, and, as importantly, everyone has information about how to get plugged into an apprenticeship because it is complicated,” he said.

During the course of the meetings, the work WRTP/BIG STEP is doing in Milwaukee was brought up. After meeting with program officials, Parisi said, the group offered to open a WRTP/BIG STEP branch in Madison.

Initiative sought

Some may choose to get a leg up with technical college training. For those who want to enter the workforce, WRTP/BIG STEP is an entryway into the trades for those who are willing to work hard and start on the ground floor.

Right now, Abreu is working at General Heating’s warehouse handling returned parts and helping gather parts for jobs the company takes on.

“It’s just a part of what you need to know to become a sheet metal worker, Polster said.

Pulcherie Gandjui, a Cameroon native, is another who came to a WRTP/BIG STEP event looking for information on the trades. She recently started a job with Nickles Electric, 4269 Argosy.

Nickles owner Mike Pohlman — who started as an apprentice in 1979 and bought the company in 2002 — told his story and also gave information about how to get into the field at a recent event.

Gandjui was at the meeting.

“It somehow motivated her to somehow ask the questions and follow the right channels,” Pohlman said.

Now she is working at Nickles. “She’s starting at ground level like a lot of my guys did — running materials, learning materials, driving a truck around — whatever it takes to keep the wheels turning in the shop,” Pohlman said.

But there is opportunity for advancement. Just like Pohlman advanced in his career, many current Nickles supervisors started at the same level as Gandjui.

Both Pohlman and Polster said the new hires are being watched for work ethic, willingness to learn, reliability and people skills. Those who impress are recommended to apply for apprenticeships.

“A lot of it is just initiative,” Pohlman said. “Showing up is a big part of initiative. Getting out of bed in the morning, you know? Other than that, the easiest thing they have to do when they start is be timely. We don’t expect them to know much. We want to train them.”

Employing local workers

While serving as a conduit between workers and employers is a big part of Clingan’s job, he also sets up job fairs, educational forums and other recruitment efforts. And he works with those planning large projects to add workforce agreements into project contracts. When The Edgewater hotel was built, Branson said, a requirement for local workers was added to the contract.

Clingan is also working with Mike Barry, Madison School District assistant superintendent for business services, to get a similar workforce agreement to have a percentage of local workers participate in the 16 building projects in the $41 million referendum approved by district voters in April.

The appeal for the district, Barry said, is on the workforce development side of things. “It is consistent with the mission of the school district, of course, to help create opportunities, in this case for workers to get into the trades and get exposure and learn and grow and, hopefully, take advantage of that opportunity.”

Barry also noted that funding for the construction work comes from the local community, “so, of course, having the opportunity to keep those dollars in the community by using local contractors and having those contractors use local residents has a lot of appeal as well,” he said.

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