McKenzie Regional Workforce Center comes to life as students visit, build workbenches

Millaly Garcia Ramos tries her hand with a circular saw as Keenih Allen-Wallace steadies the board. Photo by Robert Chappell.

A few dozen Madison East students toured the McKenzie Regional Workforce Center and built workbenches that will be used in trades training programs for years to come after the facility opens in July.

Owned and operated by the Boys and Girls Club of Dane County (BGCDC), the building on Verona Road in Fitchburg will host skilled trade training programs as well as an entrepreneurship center, financial literacy programming and much more after it officially opens on July 15.

“It feels energizing” to have youth in the building, said BGCDC Chief Operating Officer Dr. Sarah Ghee. “You know, we embarked on this construction almost a year ago. Every time the youth come in, it’s just … this is what it was built for, for them to be here and to have these experiences as they decide what they’re going to do for their future.”

“It’s amazing to see this come to life like this,” said BGCDC Vice President for Workforce Development Allan Branch. 

Students took turns practicing cuts with a circular saw, operating a table saw, and driving screws into workbench legs and tops. When all was said and done, they’d assembled four benches, and covered the top of one in their signatures.

“I got to learn how deep I’m supposed to put the screw into the wood, how I’m supposed to line everything up, how to get different angled cuts when I cut the wood. It’s been a fun experience,” said Madison East freshman Stephanie Juarez.

“I’m grateful for this experience, because I didn’t think, as a woman, that I would ever learn about this,” said Stephany Gutierrez, also a freshman at East. “Seeing I could do it by myself is something that I’m grateful for.”

Juarez, Gutierrez, Branch and Ghee all spoke with us for the “It’s Only 10 Minutes” daily podcast. Listen here:

Keenih Allen-Wallace, youth coordinator of the skilled trades program for BGCDC, appreciates the emphasis on professions in the trades.

“I grew up in Madison and went to Madison schools. It was always, ‘college, college, college.’ It is really nice that they’re investing in the trades,” Allen-Wallace said. “It’s really empowering, especially for minority groups, for young girls to actually be able to do this stuff. That’s the biggest thing.”

She also said it’s not necessarily all about jobs.

“I think the trades are cool, construction is cool, having a job is cool, but these kids can have these skills for a lifetime,” she said. “You can help build up your community and take care of your community with these skills.”

The purchase was funded by a donation from the John McKenzie family, with programming supported by the Madison Area Builders Association (MABA), tools donated by Milwaukee Tools, and a Workforce Innovation Grant from the Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development Authority. Many supporters have also donated to the cause, and the BGCDC continues to accept donations to fund ongoing programming. 

“The mission in the community to train kids and bring them into the trades specifically resonates with us very much,” said Chad Fryer, DIrector of operations at Milwaukee Tools in Sun Prairie. “The mandate here is a very needed one as we see an aging population in trades. We need the younger generation coming up, learning all of these critical skills.”

“It’s an exciting opportunity. Right now, there are 2.2 million open jobs in the construction industry nationwide over the next three years,” said Chad Lawler, executive director of MABA. “The goal long term is to get (young people) into family sustaining jobs in the construction industry. This is our legacy program. This is a 100-year-plus program.”