Building interest in construction
Teachers, industry leaders encouraging students to take up trades

By Katherine Michalets - Freeman Staff

March 21, 2015

Oconomowoc 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. 
Submitted photo

OCONOMOWOC - 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 for manufacturing.

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 significant effect.

“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 Homes.

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 math.

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. 

Oconomowoc High School student J.P. Dudley works on a construction site as
part of his building class.
Submitted photo

Interest in construction classes varies

At WCTC, some construction classes have seen a decline in enrollment while others have had an increase in students.

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 commercial work.

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 geometry class.