Jobs Ambassador: Building Wisconsin Jobs Requires Reimagining Higher Ed

By Rebecca Kleefisch – ABC of Wisconsin Jobs Ambassador

As a mom, I remember sitting in the eighth-grade parents’ “Introduction to High School” presentation in our district. As Wisconsin’s former lieutenant governor, I remember the part about higher education options students could choose at the end of high school: university or traditional college, technical college or apprenticeship.

I was impressed. Not only had our school included technical college as a higher ed option, but apprenticeships, too. I felt our state government administration’s hard work evangelizing for recruits to the trades was finally paying off. But this week, which marks National Apprenticeship Week, reminds me that the job isn’t done yet.

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I was impressed. Not only had our school included technical college as a higher ed option, but apprenticeships, too. I felt our state government administration’s hard work evangelizing for recruits to the trades was finally paying off. But this week, which marks National Apprenticeship Week, reminds me that the job isn’t done yet.

There is still a skills gap. The need for skilled construction trades workers, in particular, has created an eight-month backlog in construction projects in our part of the country. The continued demand of the longest economic expansion in American history and the undersupply of trained construction workers has led to a sustained skills gap. Solving for that gap would speed up projects, create project cost savings, still allow workers to command family sustaining wages, and do it without the crippling student loan debt often accumulated by their peers. Plus, Wisconsin construction trades jobs will never be outsourced overseas.

That’s why I am proud to partner with the Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC) of Wisconsin on the “Building Wisconsin Jobs Project,” a brand-new push to invigorate and strengthen the effort to recruit and train a well-paid Wisconsin trades workforce. Over the last eight years, I was called Wisconsin’s “Jobs Ambassador.” First, I worked to grow Wisconsin’s economy, and then I worked to grow Wisconsin’s workforce. But these efforts can’t stop or be replaced with the one-size-fits-all solution to send every student or adult who’s changing careers to university or grad school. These are great options for some, but they’re pricey for just about everyone.

According to a study by LendEDU, the average Wisconsin student loan debt is almost $30,000. Compare that to apprenticeship tuition of about $2,000 per year (including books and administrative fees) and consider that apprentices get paid while they are learning. Then recognize that the median salary for Wisconsin graduating apprentices is $77,000.

If there has ever been a time to find a career that will stay in the state, afford skills that can never be taken away, and allow you or a loved one to access your Wisconsin dream of financial security and a respected career, National Apprenticeship Week 2019 is it. And even if you determine that this skill set, along with the accompanying starting salary (which rivals that of a starting lieutenant governor) isn’t for you, make sure your local schools offer apprenticeships as a higher ed suggestion. They are higher education, an economic solution, and a way to build Wisconsin jobs.

Rebecca Kleefisch is Wisconsin’s former lieutenant governor (2011-2019) and is the “Jobs Ambassador” for the Associated Builders and Contractors of Wisconsin, a construction industry trade association representing 887 member companies across the state.

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