Group will Move Forward to Develop a Public Works Apprenticeship in Wisconsin Following Meeting

On August 22, employers from across the state came together to discuss how apprenticeship might address challenges in hiring, training, and retention in Public Works occupations across Wisconsin municipalities. The Midwest Transportation Research Center (MTWC) partnered with the Bureau of Apprenticeship Standards at the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development (DWD) to host the full-day meeting. Twenty people came together in Madison, Wisconsin, along with half a dozen people who attended virtually via live webcast.

Representatives from the DWD, Karen Morgan, Director of the Bureau of Apprenticeship Standards and Liz Pusch, Apprenticeship Training Representative, helped explain apprenticeship and gather feedback from state employers.

Apprenticeship has been used for thousands of years to develop skilled workers. In medieval times, young workers were paired as apprentices with experienced master tradesmen for a contract period of about seven years. During this time, the apprentice traded his work in exchange for training.

Today, employers still use mentorship and on-the-job training to develop the talent they need through apprenticeship programs. In addition, modern apprenticeship programs include formal education and training in a classroom setting. Completing these programs, apprentices emerge with industry-recognized credentials and, sometimes, with degrees. They also receive a paycheck beginning at the very start of their enrollment.

The apprenticeship model offers benefits to both employers and employees. People who complete apprenticeship programs come out of the process with credentials that make them valuable employees in their field. Employers get skilled workers that have been trained according to rigorous standards.

Throughout the meeting, attendees shared their current challenges with training, recruitment, and retention.

“When I started with the City as the city’s Traffic Engineer, we had no trouble finding good technical staff,” said Christopher Pirlot, Operations Divison Director for the City of Geen Bay. “Now we have to beg for good help. I get tired of reading applications where the people are not qualified. We need things to attract people and make them want to be part of our team.”

An example of apprenticeship in action in the Public Works sector was shared by Keith Stewart, Field Services Superintendent for the City of Edmond in Oklahoma. Stewart  walked attendees through the process his municipality went through to develop an apprenticeship program. This program was the first Public Works Registered Apprenticeship program in the nation. With the apprenticeship program, the City of Edmond has reduced costs and improved safety, as well as employee retention.

It was clear through discussion at the event that there was a consensus among attendees that apprenticeship could bring value to the state’s Public Works employers.

“One reason why I think this is so important is…I need our workers to be the most safe people out there,” explained Ric Mohelnitzky, Superintendent of Public Works for the City of Wausau. “We’re digging around gas lines…We look at what accidents could happen if we do not have the right training in place. Back in 1997, I lost two close friends in a sewer manhole to sewer gas. I still have the picture of one of them on a gurney in my desk drawer next to me because I do not ever want to experience that day again. That’s why safety and training are so tremendously important.”

At the conclusion of the meeting, Morgan called for attendees to volunteer as subject matter experts to help move apprenticeship forward for Public Works occupations. The MTWC is facilitating the formation of a task group of about a dozen representatives from across the state. The first step will be to determine which occupations are of highest priority. Then, the group will work to launch an apprenticeship program.

Last year, MTWC, as part of the MTWC Highway Maintenance Engineering Career Pathways Initiative, conducted a survey on the highway maintenance workforce in Wisconsin. Teresa Adams, provided an overview of the work done to date and highlighted some of the survey findings.

Wisconsin Department of Transportation (WisDOT) is unlike other state DOTs in the country because it contracts all of the state and interstate highway maintenance work to its 72 counties. The work is overseen by the County Highway Commissioners and it is the counties that employ the frontline workers. This means that many of the Public Works departments across the state employ people with skills in snow removal as well as in road surface repair and maintenance in addition to all the other skills needed to maintain infrastructure from parks to wastewater treatment facilities. A Wisconsin Public Works employee must be a “Jack of all trades.” Increasingly, the necessary skills are highly technical, requiring more than informal training by a senior team member to ensure safety and efficiency.

Brian Field, Highway Commissioner for Dodge County explained how he hopes apprenticeship will help. “Retention is a challenge. There is no structure, at least in our organization or other county organizations that I’m familiar with, that allow for organized promotion…If we could have a structure for promotions—if they could achieve some certifications with automatic wage increases and things like that—we’d have a better future for the people we do recruit. So, I’m hoping for some benefits in retention through this effort.”

A task group will work together to launch a Public Works apprenticeship in Wisconsin. Employers interested in joining as a subject matter expert may contact Kerri Phillips, MTWC Communications Manager, at kphillips22@wisc.edu.

To view recordings of the meeting and download slides and other meeting materials, visit the event webpage.