In a time when companies are seeking skilled talent and aiming to train the next generation of young workers, union apprenticeships offer another path young people can take to enter a steady career — often without incurring college debt.
Union apprentices earn a paycheck from the very beginning of their educational journey and enjoy both on-the-job and classroom training, earning college credit. With some apprenticeships, training costs are paid by the employer or the union.
“Every apprenticeship in Wisconsin works with an accredited training association to provide their instruction,” says Mike Cattelino, apprenticeship manager at Fox Valley Technical College. The Wisconsin Technical College System is the preferred provider for that instruction, most of which occurs at colleges around the state.
In other cases, such as with the state’s largest union apprenticeship program — the Wisconsin Operating Engineers — the capital intensity of providing the necessary equipment makes it more feasible for the organization to have its own training center, Cattelino says.
“We’ve worked out an arrangement with them where the courses are taught at their training center through the support of their union funds and training funds,” Cattelino says. Apprentices receive college credit for training from experts in their field, and FVTC certifies the instructors through customized training.
The carpenters union has a similar training center in Kaukauna with an arrangement through Northeast Wisconsin Technical College, Cattelino says.
The local UA 400, which represents trades such as steamfitters, plumbers, fabricators and HVAC service technicians, is another organization with its own training centers, including a facility in Kaukauna, which was expanded from 41,000 square feet to 61,000 square feet four years ago, says Jeff Knaus, business manager and financial secretary/treasurer for the UA 400 Pipe Trades.
“The workload by our contractors had grown so much,” Knaus says. “The market share within our industry of the four sectors that we represent grew, so we had to expand our training facility to assist our contractors.”
The UA 400 also operates a smaller satellite facility in Fond du Lac. UA 400 members pay into an education fund to support classes, which are offered both during the day and evening. All instructors are UA 400 members — about 70 instructors total, most part time — and are paid by FVTC and NWTC, which receive tuition from the UA 400.
“It’s no different if (apprentices) are taking a class here or if they’re actually taking a class on campus at Fox Valley Tech or NWTC,” says Scott Wenger, training coordinator for the UA 400 Pipe Trades.
The state-of-the-art facility in Kaukauna provides the necessary equipment for training the next generation of skilled workers, says Jeff Gaecke, executive vice president of the Mechanical Contractors Association of North Central Wisconsin. “It’s a much more advanced setting.”
Apprentices receive college credit and are paid by the contractors to attend school. Programs are typically five years, with the final year spent completing on-the-job training.
The number of apprentices fluctuates with the market, but the UA 400 had about 95 new apprentices last year across each of its four areas, Wenger says. The average age of entry is decreasing from about 28 years old to about 25. That, in part, may be attributed to the inception of a special youth apprenticeship program adopted by the UA 400.
“It’s very unique in the state of Wisconsin, and with the local 400, we’ve taken it to a whole new level,” Knaus says. “We allow high school students to become members of the local 400, and they are able to take classes along with the apprentices and journeymen at night school.”
Those high school students attend union meetings and work for the contractors in the shops or in the field, learning the craft alongside professionals. Last fall, the UA 400 had two high school graduates immediately start their apprenticeship with area contractors.
The shift to younger apprentices is new, as “usually contractors choose someone that is older, a little more mature,” Knaus says. “But in this case, the youth apprenticeship program is giving those young people a leg up on their competition and providing valuable insight to them in regards to our trade.”
A youth apprenticeship coordinator is now reaching out to all 90 high schools within the local 400’s jurisdiction and currently has nine active youth apprentices.
“We all see it as a win-win for both parties,” Gaecke says. “It’s a great opportunity for the youth apprentices to find out what our trades have to offer. But for the contractor, we’ve got a great opportunity to get some of the best talent ahead of time.”
Union apprenticeships, both for youth and adults, are vital to helping close the talent gap because they train the future skilled workforce and prepare them for long-term careers.
“We continuously have to feed our programs, our career opportunities here with new apprentices,” Knaus says. Even in slow markets, the union continues to add apprentices “because we know that’s what’s best for the industry. We have to continue to have a workforce that’s going to be continually up-and-coming.”