Unemployment in Wisconsin is at a historic low of 3 percent statewide. This is the lowest rate since 1999. Wisconsin is working. Businesses are hiring. Opportunities are expanding.

With this historic growth comes a strong demand for a trained workforce. The Senate Committee on Workforce Development, Military Affairs and Senior Issues, of which I am a member, recently held a public hearing and listened to testimony on Senate Bill 682. This bill expands a grant program through the Wisconsin Technical College System for students engaged in an apprenticeship to receive up to $1,000 to assist with equipment, materials and program costs.

The Great Lakes Higher Education Corporation currently administers the “Tools of the Trade” program. GLHEC is a non-profit that provides student loan support and other educational financing options. They designed Tools of the Trade specifically to help apprentices pay for the things they need to complete their programs. In 2017, GLHE awarded $200,000 in scholarships. SB 682 would provide an additional $50,000, or 50 scholarships per academic year to expand this program. The WTCS would administer these grants.

Tools of the Trade is an important program because in order to successfully complete an apprenticeship, students must purchase unique tools, clothing, equipment and supplies. The cost of these things may become an insurmountable obstacle because they are usually earning modest wages, and there is limited financial aid that may be applied to these needs. GLHEC said, “the price of steel-toe boots can stand in the way of program completion − and the promise of a rewarding career.”

Tools of the Trade is working. According to GLHEC, 94 percent of the scholarship recipients in the Tools of the Trade program have completed their programs or have continued their training into the next semester. This is exactly why they started the program and it is why the State of Wisconsin is interested in expanding it to meet the needs of more students.

Students who choose apprenticeship programs receive on-the-job training in coordination with classroom instruction. These experiences provide a strong likelihood of securing employment when they complete the program and help build a resume from their experiences.

Approximately 94 percent of apprentices from the 2015-16 school year are working in Wisconsin with 60 percent staying right in the technical college district where they received their training. In fact, 98 percent of apprentices in WTCS programs were employed in the trade for which they received training. These are incredible statistics!

We know that our workforce is aging, and we must train new workers to replace those who are retiring. In 2015-16 more than half of the apprentices in training statewide were under 30 years old. Students are recognizing the value of this type of training and the opportunity for these types of jobs. According to the WTCS, the median annual salary of someone working in the trades is $71,624. These jobs are reliable, family-supporting jobs that exist all over the state. They are needed in all of our communities.

Population in many communities of the 17th Senate District is declining. Brain-drain is an ongoing issue. We need to find ways to keep our young people in rural Wisconsin with good-paying jobs that tap into their talents. Apprenticeships show potential workers what it is like to grow in a job. They give our next generation the opportunity to learn from those who are already doing the job. All too often, young people leave our communities with unrealistic career goals and expectations. They may come back, but if we can keep them local, train them in good-paying jobs and show them how to build their life in our communities, we will be able to maintain and grow rural Wisconsin.

For more information and to connect with me, visit my website http://legis.wisconsin.gov/senate/17/marklein and subscribe to my weekly E-Update by sending an email to Sen.Marklein@legis.wisconsin.gov. Do not hesitate to call 800-978-8008 if you have input, ideas or need assistance with any state-related matters.

Republican Howard Marklein, Spring Green, represents the 17th state Senate District.