Minnesota’s got big infrastructure goals. Now we need to train the next generation of workers.

September 1, 2023 6:30 am

Photo courtesy IUPAT DC 82.

As a young single mom, Laura Wolnik knew she needed to support her son. Wolnik always had an interest in following in her dad’s footsteps after growing up watching him build a successful career in construction with a good-paying union job and strong benefits. She enrolled at the Finishing Trades Institute of the Upper Midwest (FTIUM) in the Twin Cities, and thanks to her hard work and dedication, she has been able to achieve a successful career and provide a good life for her family. Today, she’s the proud owner of Color Works Painting in Minneapolis.

The building trades have always been a critical part of our economy, and with Minnesota’s just-passed $2.6 billion bipartisan infrastructure plan, we have the opportunity to embrace the incredible potential this industry has to expand access to the good careers our families need. This historic investment could create the next generation of skilled workers who will rebuild Minnesota’s infrastructure, and we need to ensure our state’s apprentices have the support they need to graduate strong and rebuild our workforce.

A traditional four-year college education was once considered by many as the best path to the middle class. In the union construction industry, folks like Wolnik are able to become entrepreneurs through zero-debt apprenticeship programs.

With the student loan forgiveness plan halted and the cost of college continuing to rise every year, our state’s nearly 300,000 high school students are thinking more and more about zero-debt, common-sense alternatives like the career paths provided by the trades.

Apprenticeship graduates and journeypersons achieve an average starting salary of $72,000. Lifetime career earnings for apprentice graduates can be about $300,000 more than non-apprenticeship employees in similar fields. With the average Minnesota college graduate starting salary of $41,000, and workers not in the trades more likely to carry student debt, it’s clear trade schools can offer a brighter future for many students and families.

With Minnesota’s new infrastructure legislation set to spark the creation of thousands of new jobs, we know the potential is here, but we simply cannot fill all those positions until we train the next generation of workers. A new report shows 6.9 job openings for every 100 jobs in Minnesota, our state’s third-highest job vacancy rate in more than 20 years. In fact, job vacancies have doubled in every region of the state since 2005. As businesses continue to struggle to fill jobs, it’s clear we need to increase our state’s skilled workforce.

Given that most finishing trades apprenticeships taking 2-3 years, now is the time to ensure trade schools are ready to help contractors and communities maximize this new funding and boost the number of workers ready to take these critical jobs. Instead of going into debt while in a traditional four-year program, apprentices can work full time, often earning enough to save for a nest egg after they graduate.

FTIUM is an example of what’s possible when we invest in trade school programs that provide the benefits of a college education with the assurance they need to climb the career ladder at every stage. When apprentices are not only given the experience and skillsets they need to do their jobs safely but given the push to go above and beyond, demonstrating interpersonal tact and technical innovation to their teams and employers, they are able to become the next generation of Laura Wolniks.

Here at District Council 82 (DC 82), Laura Wolnik’s story as an apprenticeship graduate – who benefited from a good-paying union job that helped her build a career and become a business owner – is proof that the trades reward hard work.

As we embrace the economic opportunity created by Minnesota’s new infrastructure law, it is vital that our state’s leaders act to ensure this new funding goes to support the strong union apprenticeship programs that are critical to training the next generation of skilled workers we need to rebuild our state’s infrastructure and making a lasting investment in our future.

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Jeff Stark
Jeff Stark

Jeff Stark is the Business Manager/Secretary-Treasurer of IUPAT DC 82, the union representing more than 3,500 workers in the finishing trades across Minnesota, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota and western Wisconsin. He has more than 30 years of experience in the finishing trades, starting his career as a painter and drywall finisher in 1996.