Milwaukee, WI is in the throes of a building boom, and the building trades are at the center of efforts to ensure a safe, highly-trained and qualified workforce, while also creating much-needed career training opportunities for historically disadvantaged residents in the greater Milwaukee area.
About 109,000 Wisconsin residents were working in the construction industry at the end of 2016, up from 90,000 in 2010, according to the state Department of Workforce Development. In July, more than 112,000 people were involved in construction work.
Over the past few years, thousands of those jobs have been concentrated in downtown Milwaukee.
So far, about 2,000 people have participated on work related to the new Milwaukee Bucks arena.
It took 2,600 workers to build the just-completed 32-story Northwestern Mutual Tower and Commons. Nearby, the insurer’s under-construction 34-floor apartment high rise, called 7Seventy7, is employing about 280 workers right now.
Among other job-generating projects:
• At the former Pabst brewery complex, Hyatt Place, a $27 million, 150-room hotel, is planned.
• Vim and Vigor apartments, a 274-unit, $40 million development, also will be located in the old Pabst property.
• The 25-story BMO Harris Financial Center is to be built on the site of the parking garage of the old Marshall & Ilsley Corp. building — now BMO Harris Bank — downtown.
• Construction on the 44-story, 312-unit lakefront Couture apartment skyscraper could start by the end of 2017.
“My best estimate would be that at least for the next five years, and possibly 10 years, there is a very strong workload in the state of Wisconsin within construction,” said Tony Mayrhofer, business manager for Iron Workers Local 8, which has about 100 members working at the Bucks arena site.
Wisconsin seems to be keeping up with the demand for construction workers, thanks in part to a local training program that prepares people for the jobs.
Known as WRTP/BIG STEP, it is a joint effort of the Wisconsin Regional Training Partnership and the Building Industry Skilled Trades Employment Program, which is an apprenticeship readiness, tutoring and training program aimed at helping local residents succeed in construction trades careers.
City of Milwaukee officials are using construction growth to help launch unemployed or underemployed residents into careers in the industry through its Residents Preference Program. RPP certification is meant to promote the use of city residents as part of a contractor’s or developer’s workforce on certain city-funded construction and private development projects. Contractors bidding on public works or development projects financed with public tax money must hire a percentage of RPP workers, typically 40%.
Of the 2,600 people who built the Northwestern Mutual Tower and Commons, about 1,200 were local residents hired through RPP.
The pay for construction positions often is better than for many jobs that also are in demand and don’t require a college degree.
For example, under the current labor agreement between Iron Workers Local 8 and a group of contractors, workers who reach journeyman status — after on-the-job apprentice training — are paid $33.19 an hour. With benefits and pension, the hourly compensation amounts to $60.79. Apprentices start at 60% of journeyman pay, and get increases as they progress.
“One of the things that unions try to do is make sure that the workforce within the trades will be able to sustain their families, take care of their families,” Mayrhofer said.