Gov, DWD mark National Apprenticeship Week as Wisconsin breaks participation record

DWD Director of Apprenticeship Standards David Polk addresses students and members of the trades Tuesday. Photo by Omar Waheed.

One hundred twelve years in the making, Wisconsin celebrated a major milestone Tuesday as the state broke another record with apprenticeship programs.

The Wisconsin Regional Training Partnership (WRTP), an organization founded to revitalize Milwaukee’s workforce in manufacturing and trades, hosted a celebration for National Apprenticeship Week at the Plumbers Local 75 training center in Madison on Tuesday.

Wisconsin was the first state to have laws regulating apprenticeships and the first registered apprenticeship system in 1911. Since then, apprenticeships have grown and continue to hit record highs in the dairy state, with over 16,384 registered apprentices this year – the most ever.

“Today Wisconsin’s continued leadership relies on partnerships among state government, employers, labor unions and Technical College System and individuals eager to master in demand skills,” Gov. Tony Evers said.

Evers, along with Department of Workforce Development (DWD) officials, heralded the continued efforts to bolster apprenticeships. Apprenticeship programs are now seeing more diverse participation than ever with more women and Black and Latinos, DWD’s Director of Apprenticeship Standards David Polk said.

“This demonstrates that apprenticeship is a critical tool in building a workforce that reflects and represents our communities,” Polk said. “This is part of our intentional strategy to leverage our homegrown workforce, tap underutilized talent pools and connect employers with the skilled workforce they need to thrive.” 

After the state officials’ speeches, students from greater Madison schools and members from the trades in Wisconsin went out to the backroom to hear more about specific trades, unions and apprenticeships with hands-on activities.

Students built rudimentary metal toolboxes and went through a mudding VR experience at the instruction of trades workers as part of some hands-on activities.

Governor Tony Evers discusses apprenticeship programs at an event Tuesday. Photo by Omar Waheed.

“A lot of it starts with awareness, making sure people are learning and then the actual introduction to these opportunities. And things like today, in this 35 square mile area, students can come in and actually get a contextual look at what these different occupations actually do,” Polk said.

Outreach and exposure are hardpoints that the DWD pushes to continue growing apprenticeship programs and getting marginalized communities involved. Polk, who is a third-generation plumber, pins his apprenticeship with Plumbers Local 75, a trade union in southeastern Wisconsin that represents over 1,400 plumbers, as the launching point of his life.

Polk started his apprenticeship straight out of high school and completed it in 2001. As a third-generation plumber, Polk was exposed and had access to a sustainable field in the trades. He went on to become an inspector, got his bachelor’s and is currently the director for DWD’s Apprenticeship Standards — but that all started with awareness of opportunities.

Wisconsin is now seeing more fields starting apprenticeships. Information technology, health care and human resources have started apprenticeship programs in Wisconsin, Polk said. 

“The other growth is in our … emergent sectors,” Polk said. “These are occupations that had never previously had apprenticeships are now looking at apprenticeship as a workforce training model because they’re experiencing some hurdles and hiring and getting talent.”The DWD currently offers over 200 apprenticeship opportunities. Apprenticeships facilitated by the DWD can be found in its website.