Wis. IBEW Leaders Open High Schoolers’ Eyes to Building Trades


November 1, 2013

A new program is touting the benefits of trade apprenticeships to high school students in Wisconsin.

You hear it from the mouths of young people everyday: I can’t afford college. The debt would be too big. I’m not sure what to do.


Clay Tschillard is working to allay those fears and offer some hope for high school students in Wisconsin. The Madison Local 159 member is part of a team of union leaders who launched the new “Trade Up” awareness program – an area initiative that offers students an up-close look at the building trades and helps pave the way for job growth.

“We want students to know that there are other options that lead to quality careers, without the student loan debt,” said Tschillard, the apprenticeship coordinator for the state’s NJATC program.

The publicity campaign took shape a year ago when IBEW instructors started talking with area high school career counselors about the viability of apprenticeships. In the past, Tschillard said, it’s been a challenge to bring the message of the building trades into high schools, as career counseling has often focused solely on a four-year college degree, to the exclusion of many other options.

“This is one of the first times they’ve come to us and asked, ‘Can you show these kids what you have to offer?’” Tschillard said.

Trade Up launched at 21 high schools last month in districts across Dane County in the south central part of the state. The campaign includes curriculum, fliers, an interactive Web site featuring apprentice testimonials, videos and more for school counselors to use when discussing career options with students. The multimedia teaching tools were produced by the area’s Workforce Development Board.

The IBEW is one of several unions participating – including the sheet metal workers, plumbers, laborers, bricklayers, iron workers and painters and drywall finishers.

The unions are footing 85 percent of the bill for large posters for counselors to hang in their rooms and eight-foot-tall informational banners that spotlight basic apprenticeship information, wage expectations and more. A press release about the program also appears in many high school newsletters that students bring home.

Barely two months in, Trade Up is already scoring positive marks from many school counselors. Greg Benz, the school-to-career coordinator for Waunakee High School, said:

You’ve got a perfect storm of people talking about college debt, with parents talking about it and students talking about it. It’s a good time to do some promotion. If it’s successful in raising awareness, I could see it replicated throughout the state.

While it’s early to judge the ultimate outcome of the program, “We’ve already seen an increase in the number of apprenticeship applicants,” Tschillard said. “We’re getting calls from high schools, and word is out there that the IBEW is looking for qualified people.”

The wage advantage that comes from being a skilled worker is a key point of Trade Up.

“The minimum wage in Wisconsin is $7.25, but the average hourly wage for an electrician is $25.63,” Tschillard said. Journeyman-level salaries for electricians in the state exceed $60,000 a year. “We talk about how while you’re going through the program, you’re earning while you learn. And when you finish, you graduate as an experienced worker rather than having to start at an entry level position from scratch like many college graduates – some of whom might not even get a job at all.”

Tschillard has seen both sides of that. As the son of an electrician father, Tschillard went to college after high school, earning a degree in physical geography. “But I graduated during the recession of the ‘80s. I couldn’t find a job. Finally I went down to the IBEW hall and applied.” Now with more than two decades in the brotherhood, Tschillard has been the NJATC apprenticeship training director for 16 years.

“The trades worked out for me in a way that college didn’t,” he said. “And we know they can for many other young people in the state.”

Visit the interactive Trade Up Web site.