As Trump Talks Skilled Trades, Much Could Be Done in Milwaukee

Jun 15, 2017

Update: President Trump has signed an executive order designed to expand apprenticeship opportunities across the country. 

The finale to the president's "workforce week" -- during which he traveled to Wisconsin to highlight on-the-job training -- Trump's action changes the certification process for government-subsidized apprenticeships. As reported by The Hill, the measure would allow companies, industry groups and unions to "create and certify" their own job-training programs. The Labor Department would need to approve those programs, although the move would otherwise largely remove the department as an ongoing monitor for the initiatives. 

Original story, posted June 14: 

Government's role in encouraging more people to enter skilled trade careers was front and center Tuesday, during President Donald Trump’s visit to Wisconsin. Trump joined Governor Scott Walker at Waukesha County Technical College to tout the importance of technical education and on-the-job training.

"During my campaign for president, I talked about the crucial importance of vocational training -- teaching young people the skills, crafts and trades that are vital to our economy, and our success as a country, and their success as an individual," Trump said during a roundtable discussion.

Students have a variety of answers when asked what it would take to convince them to enter a skilled trade.

University of Pittsburgh senior Edyn Herbert says the experiences she had in her K-12 classes played a big role in helping her choose a career path in English.

“I had bad science teachers and good English teachers, and that’s probably what changed the course for me,” Herbert recounts. “Maybe if somewhere along the line, I had a better teacher that made me feel better about science, things would have gone completely differently.”

Kati Kokal studies journalism at the University of Missouri. She says it’s likely she didn’t consider a career in the trades because she wasn’t exposed to the option in her community growing up.

“A four-year university was just kind of the plan,” she says. “Of the students that went to college in my high school, most of them, like myself, were going to a four-year university that was more minded in a program that led to a career in an office, rather than outside.”

And, Kokal adds, it would take more than a VIP endorsement to convince her otherwise.

"Too many people have this idea that going into a trade is like, 'plan B'"

“I think you just need the passion to do it. Having the president speak about how more people go into the trades would not convince me to go into a trade.”

READ: Apprenticeships Give MPS Students Real-World Work Experience

Could President Trump or Governor Walker do anything to bolster the trades?

Dan Bukiewicz, president of the Milwaukee Building Construction Trades Council, says so far neither leader has made technical education much of a priority.

“It’s really ironic that they’re coming in to push apprenticeships, because many of the things they did were deterrents for apprenticeships,” he explains.

What Bukiewicz points to as deterrents are the most recent federal budget, where he says the president proposed slashing funds for job training as well as apprenticeships. And, Bukiewicz adds, Gov. Walker isn’t doing much better in Wisconsin, by weakening labor unions and eliminating project-labor agreements with municipalities.

According to Bukiewicz, too many folks believe they have read the writing on the wall. “There is a demand for people in the trades, without a doubt,” he says. “It’s a great time if you want to explore a career that will support a family, in the trades.”

Michael Rosen, a recently retired economics instructor at MATC and former president of the AFT Local 212 union.
Credit Rachel Morello

Michael Rosen, a recently retired economics instructor at MATC, insists that more money would help. In particular, he says, more funding for the state’s technical college system – one of the main avenues for developing skilled trades here.

“We have 40,000 students that are on the waiting list for scholarships, because Gov. Walker’s not funding those Wisconsin higher education grants. He cut the funding for the technical colleges. These policies all undermine the ability to create skilled trades in the state of Wisconsin,” Rosen says.  

Facts and figures aside, lawmakers may face a taller task to incentivize young people to enter the trades.

Marquette student Alex Groth says sometimes, it can be tough to ignore the stigma that’s often associated with technical education. “Too many people have this idea that going into a trade is like, ‘plan B’, or like something you should do when you don’t have money to go to a four-year university,” she says.

Yet, she thinks there’s plenty of respect for people who enter the trades.

Wisconsin’s history is steeped in them. The state was the first in the nation to establish apprenticeship programs back in 1911.