Originally published by The Daily Reporter

Stephanie Johnston is at the forefront of training the next generation of tradespeople in South Central Wisconsin.

Johnston is the director of the Wisconsin Regional Training Partnership’s BIG STEP’s training center in Madison. In her role, she oversees the group’s efforts to bring workers into various trades.

WRTP | BIG STEP conducts more than just apprenticeship training for union tradespeople. The center’s staff works to make sure students are being guided into a trade that’s a good fit. It offers tutoring services to help students pass tests needed to enter various training programs.

WRTP is developing programs in emerging parts of the building industry, such as green construction. Skilled Magazine recently caught up with Johnston to talk about WRTP | BIG STEP’s work in the Madison area. (The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

Skilled Magazine: What kind of opportunity exists in the trades for skilled workers?

WRTP/Big Step’s Stephanie Johnston

WRTP | BIG STEP’s Stephanie Johnston

Stephanie Johnston: Right now, there’s high demand overall in pretty much all of the building trades. With COVID, we knew there would be a lot of retirees leaving.

A lot of employers have talked about how there’s an unequal balance because of retirements. There’s just a shortage of workers in the industry. It’s in high demand right now.

I think right now is one of the best times to get into the construction industry because they’re more open to training individuals that have no background in the construction industry. Right now there are a lot of positions out there.

SM: How does WRTP | BIG STEP work to place someone in the right trade?

SJ: Usually an individual reaches out to us and we’ll have them go through our orientation, which talks about what an apprenticeship is and what an apprenticeship is like. We really want to set them up so they’re prepared for the industry.

Sometimes construction can be glamorized when we’re trying to draw in new workers with union wages. It can look really fulfilling, but it isn’t a fit for everyone. So we talk about the different conditions they’ll be in and the elements they’ll be exposed to, to make sure it’s a good fit for everyone.

We encourage people to do trade exploration. A lot of the times they have an idea where they’re going. But we highly recommend trade exploration — your skillset, your personality, your hobbies and interests. We kind of have a matrix where we eliminate some of the trades that wouldn’t be a good fit for you. After that we go more in depth about it. It really varies with the individual.

We do know a lot of apprentices and we like to connect them to give them a perspective about what it takes to be successful, how they overcame these hurdles. That’s worked out really well, having them connect with individuals closer to their age.

SM: How have you worked to adapt your programs to COVID-19?

SJ: We now offer apprenticeship testing online, so we’ve been doing that for about a year and a half. We also offer a hybrid option for orientation — they can either attend in person or they can attend virtually.

We’re able to do a lot of our training online. So we’ve set up Google classrooms for our soft skills classes. We’ve started doing Zoom mock interviews. That’s been really helpful because we’ve been able to get a lot of employers to help out.

We’re able to do a lot of our services online or hybrid. That’s been a real advantage I think.

For example, with our hands-on workshops, or the hands-on career fairs, we’ve been more strategic about the people we bring in.

With our career fair in July, it was organized outdoors. We spaced out the work stations really well. Everybody signed up for a block of time. This allowed us to put a cap on how many people came at a certain time and allowed groups to come to a workstation so they weren’t cluttered.

We’ve moved a lot of stuff virtually, but when we can we do stuff in person, or we give people the option to attend virtually.

SM: Why should someone consider a career in the construction trades?

SJ: People should consider the building trades because it’s a great opportunity to have a pathway into a career instead of just a job. They offer family sustainable wages, amazing benefits packages with retirement, pension, not to mention, you don’t need to pay for your tuition. In an apprenticeship, you’re paid for your time in the classroom.

There are so many avenues to go down; it’s a really exciting industry.

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