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As The Recruitment & Retention Of Black Apprentices In Milwaukee ‘Lags,’ The State Program Director Says ‘Changes Are Coming’

Published Tuesday, May 4, 2021
by Talis Shelbourne/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
As The Recruitment & Retention Of Black Apprentices In Milwaukee ‘Lags,’ The State Program Director Says ‘Changes Are Coming’

(MILWAUKEE, WISCONSIN) - Joshua Johnson, who serves as Director of the State of Wisconsin’s Apprenticeship Program, is famous for saying, “Apprenticeship is for everyone.”

However, recent numbers suggest the Coronavirus Pandemic exacerbated racial disparities in the construction industry and retaining Black Apprentices in that industry may pose one of the state program’s biggest challenges to date

Apprenticeships, paid training opportunities that can last three to seven years, represent the primary way people interested in construction careers become Journey Workers in Trades such as plumbing, bricklaying and electrical work.

Based on state Department of Workforce Development statistics, the share of Minority Construction Apprentices in Milwaukee fell from a high of 17% in 2009 to 15% last year.

The share of Black Construction Apprentices fell from 9% to 5%.

Efforts to increase the numbers of historically under-represented groups in the construction industry come amid concerns about whether there will be enough skilled Laborers for construction and renovation projects in the decades to come.

According to 2019 Census data, 87% of the housing stock in the city of Milwaukee was built before 1980.

For all of Milwaukee County, that figure only drops to 82%.

Here are some of the challenges facing recruiting and retaining Black Apprentices:

A report that examined Union-affiliated Apprentice Programs for more than 15 Trades in the Milwaukee area found that Black Apprentices took the biggest hit in Membership during the COVID year.

Lois Quinn, a retired University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Senior Researcher, found that between 2019 and 2020, the number of Black Apprentices decreased by 22.8%.

The losses were so great, she said, they nearly wiped out 10 years of gains.

That is, 52 of the 62 Black Apprentices gained from 2009 to 2019 were lost during the COVID year.

By comparison, Hispanic Apprentices saw a net gain of 125 Apprenticeships from 2009 to 2019, but only a net loss of 12 in 2020. 

Quinn found that "in 2020, there were ten times as many White Workers receiving Union Apprenticeships Training in the Milwaukee area as Black Workers.  Among Non-Union Training Programs, the gap was even larger with thirty White Apprentices trained for every Black Apprentice.”

In many respects, the numbers were low even before the pandemic.

Dan Bukiewicz, who serves as President of the Milwaukee Building and Construction Trade Council, said the Unions take on an estimated 85% to 90% of Apprenticeships around the state, providing the paid 2,000 hours of in-classroom schooling and 8,000 hours of on-the-job training required for graduation.

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