RACINE — Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes heard multiple requests for more funding of the First Choice Pre-Apprenticeship Program Tuesday morning during a visit to Racine.

Barnes sat at a table at First Choice, 1427 Marquette St., with Mayor Cory Mason, several other local public officials, YMCA Executive Director Jeff Collen and YMCA Vice President and Chief Operating Officer Amad Qawi. Barnes learned about the Racine Family YMCA Program from them and from First Choice Executive Director Ola Baiyewu before taking a tour.

The message Barnes heard, over and over, was: This is a great program, but we need the state’s help to make it much bigger.

The nonprofit First Choice Pre-Apprenticeship Program is an initiative designed to increase racial diversity in the construction trades. The program prepares under-represented, unemployed or low-income people, minorities, women, and others to take the Apprenticeship Qualifying Test. First Choice also trains people in the life skills required to get and maintain a job in the skilled building and construction trades.

Graduates become eligible for employment opportunities in areas such as: craft laborer; electrical construction; masonry/bricklaying; carpentry; manufacturing; ironworker; and plumbing.

Baiyewu said First Choice has trained about 800 people. “Six hundred of them make an average of $70,000,” he said.

Some First Choice participants are high school dropouts with a GED, some just have a high school diploma, Baiyewu said. Some come from the state corrections system.

Baiyewu said that Racine had not had a minority boilermaker in the past 50 years. But First Choice has helped train one. The same applies for a minority pipefitter. “And some of them came from the prison system,” Baiyewu added.

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Mason: We need many more

“It’s a great program. We just need to scale it up quickly for all the jobs that are coming,” Mason told Barnes. “There’s at least, that we know of, 1,200 construction jobs just between Foxconn and the public-sector (projects) in ’19.

“There is a labor shortage in construction right now,” Mason continued. In the next five years there will be 11,000 construction jobs, and that figure does not include approximately $100 million in Racine development projects that have been announced in the last few months.

Mason also said that half of the workers in the building trades are expected to retire within the next 10 years.

“We need to go from training dozens per year to hundreds,” he said.

After the tour of First Choice, Barnes said it’s important for the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development to be aware of programs such as First Choice, its success rate and the needs of this area. And he plans to share what he saw and heard with Gov. Tony Evers.

Fueling a program such as First Choice should get bipartisan support, he said.

“The grants are there to be given out,” Barnes said. “We need to make sure that they’re given out and used in the most effective way. People have demonstrated effectiveness, we should be able to reward and try to replicate that success.”

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Michael "Mick" Burke covers business and the Village of Sturtevant. He is the proud father of two daughters and owner of a fantastic, although rug-chewing, German shepherd dog.

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