interest in construction
industry leaders encouraging students to take up trades
Michalets - Freeman Staff
March 21, 2015
High School building students Brandon Laughlin and
Nate Jost work on a construction site as part of a
partnership with their teacher, Steve Olson, has
developed with Tim O'Brien Homes.
- Even though plumbers, electricians and carpenters are
vital to the construction industry, these trades are
seeing a skills gap, similar to the one widely reported
When the construction industry took a direct hit during
the Recession, some technical colleges cut trade courses
out entirely, while others like Waukesha County
Technical College reduced their offerings to match the
level of interest. Now as the economy and homebuilding
pick up again, those years of decline are having a
“We have this huge shortage of quality skilled labor
force, not just in the Milwaukee area but across the
nation,” said Tim O’Brien, owner of Tim O’Brien
As a more fragmented industry, construction companies
and contractors don’t have the money or strength to
put behind recruiting and then training individuals as
manufacturing does, O’Brien said.
As a result, Tim O’Brien Homes has embraced a program
out of the Oconomowoc Area School District that teaches
basic and advanced home building, safety skills and
Oconomowoc High School teacher Steve Olson said
there has been significant interest in the building
classes. He said he is running three beginning level
building classes and two upper level ones, as well as a
math through trades class that has 50 students
registered. The course is in collaboration with a
geometry teacher and offers students a more hands-on
approach to learning math and its applications.
One of the classes even earns a student four credits at
WCTC and two high school credits. In addition to the
in-school coursework, Oconomowoc students can help build
a home as part of Olson’s partnership with Tim
O’Brien Homes. Olson is anticipating adding the
building curriculum during the next school year.
“There are a lot of good things that are happening in
the trades. It’s good, honest work,” Olson said.
School student J.P. Dudley works on a construction
part of his building class.
in construction classes varies
At WCTC, some construction classes have seen a decline
in enrollment while others have had an increase in
Mark Montgomery, associate dean of construction &
transportation technologies, said the carpentry program
started in 1999 and up until 2008 the college had two
full sections of 18 students. After the economy took a
downturn, the enrollment decreased so WCTC cut it back
to one section of 18 students.
A masonry program in 2009 was suspended due to lack of
interest, but electrical and plumbing classes are
popular, Montgomery said.
Most of the students who attend WCTC’s one-year
carpentry program are interested in residential
construction, but Montgomery said residential work is
slower to rebound after the Recession than industrial or
While WCTC staff have encouraged students to consider
commercial and industrial work, Montgomery said students
tend to be more familiar with residential construction
and can be intimidated by the complexity of the
industrial and commercial work.
A challenge that the construction trades have always
faced is creating high school courses and
apprenticeships to expose students to the work earlier,
as manufacturing has increasingly done.
Montgomery said under labor laws students may not be
allowed to go on construction sites or to different
floors of a project under development.
“They offer good, livable wages,” Montgomery said of
construction trade jobs. “There is always going to be
a demand for the skilled trades.”
When O’Brien heard about what Olson was aiming to do
with providing his students the opportunity to gain
hands-on learning, O’Brien was enthusiastic —
especially after he learned the students got rigorous
safety training first.
“This is a great opportunity to give these kids a
chance to see something they wouldn’t normally see in
high school,” O’Brien said.
He has seen a shift in high schools away from offering
courses like woodworking or printing, which in the past
allowed a student to determine if he or she might like
to pursue the work as a career or a hobby. Now
coursework has become more focused on preparing students
to attend a four-year university, which isn’t always
the best fit.
From exploring trades to owning a business
O’Brien hopes that if a student is exposed to the
construction trades, he or she may realize they enjoy
the work and want to purse a related four-year degree in
construction management or developing green building
technology. He also tells students that if a person
learns a trade and masters it, in 15 to 20 years he or
she could have his own business.
Olson said it’s important that people make a push and
advocate for trade construction awareness.
“It is a vital thing for our community,” Olson said
of the positions. “And yet you don’t see the push
that we need more kids in the trades.”
He said he is starting to see more girls enroll in the
building class, many of whom enter it through the trade