Wisconsin has record number of apprentices in 112-year-old training program

DWD secretary says apprenticeships are helping foster diversity in state's workforce

a plumber prepares tub drains during a replacement of plumbing in an older apartment building
In this Dec. 13, 2018, photo a plumber prepares tub drains during a replacement of plumbing in an older apartment building in Seattle. U.S. service firms grew at a slower pace in December, a possible indication that various headwinds from turbulent markets to trade tensions could be having an impact on economic activity. Elaine Thompson/AP Photo

Wisconsin has a record-high number of enrolled apprentices in a state program designed to be a pipeline for skilled workers in trades and emerging industries.

Gov. Tony Evers announced Tuesday that 16,384 apprentices are currently enrolled in Wisconsin’s Registered Apprenticeship Program. That surpasses last year’s participation, which was the highest since 2001.

Wisconsin has had an apprenticeship program since 1911, and is the only state to require employers to pay their apprentices for both time worked and time spent in required classroom instruction.

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Youth participation in apprenticeships, which began in 1991, also set records during the 2021-22 school year, with 8,357 participants and 5,719 employers.

“For over a century, Wisconsin has been a national leader in apprenticeship, which will continue to play a critical role in addressing our state’s generational workforce challenges and building a 21st-century workforce for a 21st-century economy,” Evers said in a statement. “It’s exceedingly important that we invest in apprenticeships and getting folks the skills and training they need to participate in our workforce while continuing to be a model of innovation and flexibility to meet evolving workforce needs.”

Evers announced the enrollment numbers at the Plumbers Union Local 75 training center in Madison as part of National Apprenticeship Week. The event was hosted by the industrial training program WRTP | BIG STEP of South Central Wisconsin.

David Arias is an apprentice with the plumbers union. He said the Big Step program helped him study for tests and once brought a laptop to his house.

“That felt good because I felt like going into construction, I’d be kind of alone,” Arias said. “It gave me the confidence to come into the union and be able to learn without worry.”

Steve Breitlow, the business manager for the union, said the Madison training center is one of many in the state that brings together employers, contractors and apprentices to help grow the workforce.

“I’m a third generation plumber. I have a daughter who’s a fourth generation plumber,” Breitlow said. “If you get into union apprenticeship, you’re gonna have health insurance, retire with dignity and have state-of-the-art training.”

Department of Workforce Development Secretary Amy Pechacek said apprenticeships in the state are adaptable.

“We now have over 150 active apprentices in the emerging sectors of health care, child care and IT,” Pechacek said. “Recognizing the demands that are being placed on our schools, we’re also moving very quickly to develop apprenticeships in the education field.”

Pechacek said the program has more diverse participation than ever before.

“We are seeing increases in the number of women and participants of color, including those who identify as Black and Hispanic,” she said. “And this demonstrates that apprenticeship is a critical tool in building a workforce that reflects and represents our communities.”