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Black construction trainees in Milwaukee could help alter underrepresentation in industry

man talking into a microphone
Chuck Quirmbach
Construction wireman Timothy Davis speaks at a January 19 visit by Acting U.S. Labor Secretary Julie Su to the Milwaukee Electrical JATC North Campus in Wauwatosa.

The construction industry is one in which Black Americans have typically been underrepresented. As WUWM begins its coverage of Black History Month, we have the stories of some young Black men and women who are working towards good jobs in the construction business.

Two Biden administration cabinet members looked very favorably upon the Wisconsin Regional Training Partnership (WRTP) | BIG STEP organization during recent visits. Acting Labor Secretary Julie Su brought news of more than $1 million for training on building and maintaining electric vehicle charging stations.

At that event in Wauwatosa, Timothy Davis spoke. He's a WRTP graduate, who has just become a construction wireman. That's an entry-level position working for an electrical contractor. Davis said growing up, his parents emphasized that he be successful.

"Especially being Black, it's important," he told Su, other trainees, construction and training leaders, and the news media.

Davis said he considered going to college, and believes it's a good option for people. But he said he's happy to enter the building trades, with the goal of becoming an electrician.

"Being able to have another opportunity to be successful and have a chance at a good life and not live paycheck to paycheck, I think it's important," Davis said.

Milwaukee County Executive David Crowley in a small chair
Chuck Quirmbach
Milwaukee County Executive David Crowley (seated) tries out a small chair built by trainees at the Wisconsin Regional Training Partnership facility in Milwaukee. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen stands behind Crowley. Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers is at right.

A week later, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen toured the WRTP/Big Step training center at 37th and Wisconsin Ave. in Milwaukee. At one stop, two young Black men used a power saw to cut a block of wood for their visitor.

Rondae Robbins operated the saw. He later told reporters that the training program is a second chance for him.

"I'm in this program because I didn't take the college route. I didn't get a chance to finish school. So, here at this program, we get a chance to learn a new trade and also earn our HSED (high school equivalency diploma.) So, it's like a combination. It's the best opportunity in Milwaukee, if we're being honest," Robbins said.

Robbins said he hasn't centered on a particular trade yet but might be cautious about one that involves heights.

Kealan Davis secured the wood for the sawing demonstration. He said he's leaning toward being a plumber, or an electrician, following in the footsteps of others he's known.

Davis said learning is a challenge, but manageable. "It's pretty hard. It's pretty strict. But if you take your time with it, you can get through it right. The message is take your time with it, ask for help. If you have any concerns, make sure you speak up," he said.

People sitting at a table
Chuck Quirmbach
Secretary Yellen, Gov. Tony Evers and U.S. Rep. Gwen Moore (at back table) take part in a roundtable with WRTP officials and trainees during Sec. Yellen's visit to WRTP on January 26.

The trainees and graduates who are Black are trying to succeed in the construction industry where, as of a 2021 study, Black people held just 6% of the jobs — compared to 12% in all industries.

There's also a big gender gap, with 89% of construction workers being men. But during Yellen's visit to WRTP, she also met Black carpentry student Tyonna Love.

Love told the cabinet member: "I'm the only female here at BIG STEP at the moment. And, I'm just really representing it. Trying to encourage other females and other young ladies to join the construction field. Hands on! We can do it, too!"

"That's great," Yellen replied, shortly before she announced a $1.5 million grant to update and expand the training facility.

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