Kailee Schminkey of Elk River always imagined a college degree as her pathway to a great career. She started out as a nursing assistant and personal care attendant—a job she loved—but soon realized she’d never earn enough to put herself through college. With Minnesota student debt adding up to a staggering $29 billion, loans didn’t seem like a viable option.
So Kailee chose a nontraditional but financially pragmatic approach instead, taking her dad’s advice and following him into the finishing trades as a painter. She applied to the Finishing Trades Institute of the Upper Midwest (FTIUM), and thanks to our union’s apprenticeship program, Kailee will earn her Associate of Applied Science in Construction Technologies degree from one of the best finishing trades colleges in the country.
Instead of racking up student debt while she earns her degree, she is bringing home a paycheck from one of Minnesota’s top employers, and has an on-ramp to getting her bachelor’s degree at a top-rated university where she’ll have little to no student debt.
Here’s how it works: If a student is ready to start their apprenticeship, they’ll begin their paid training program. If they need a leg up before starting their apprenticeship, they get five free weeks of Worker Readiness training where they are given the background they need to make a seamless transition into our paid apprenticeship program. After they finish, students can go on to the school’s Associate’s program, where they can access multiple scholarships and financial assistance plans.
Our state is getting more than $4.5 billion to overhaul crumbling roads and bridges. Over the next five years, about $302 million is expected for bridge replacement and repairs alone. The problem is we don’t have the skilled workforce we need to get the job done. It takes about three years for an apprentice to become an industrial painter specializing in bridge coatings. That means we need to recruit more apprentices like Kailee – and fast.
Our union, the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades District Council 82 (IUPAT DC 82) and FTIUM’s programs can help Minnesota meet both the challenge and the opportunity presented by this federal infrastructure funding. Our program can train the workforce we need to build and fix our roads and bridges.
Kailee’s example demonstrates that our apprenticeship program can tackle another challenge too: registered apprenticeship programs can break down long-standing barriers for women and people of color in an industry that has historically been primarily white and male. When FTIUM first started, we recognized how women and people of color have historically been overlooked during recruitment efforts. That’s why our efforts are focused on welcoming them to our programs. We now boast one of the most impressive diversity rates across the IUPAT.
At DC 82, we’ve seen firsthand how ramping up efforts to recruit diverse apprentices enhances the effectiveness of our workforce. Our union program beats the state average with about one in five graduating apprentices being women or people of color, but we still have a long way to go. If we’re going to foster the workforce we need, we need to intentionally create new opportunities that will overcome historical disparities.
If we succeed, we will open doors for thousands previously excluded from lucrative, family-sustaining careers and give them educational opportunities that provide real-world experience that many students can’t get at traditional four-year colleges.
When I asked Kailee about her experience, she told me, “I can do so much more than I could just two years ago. That self-growth is very empowering. I get to meet so many different kinds of people from all different trades, and I always have the opportunity to keep advancing and work my way up. There’s never a finish line. You can always go as far as you’re willing to take it.”
Apprenticeships can break down barriers and build bridges – literally and figuratively. For workers, especially women and workers of color, starting an apprenticeship means higher wages and more opportunities to climb the career ladder they might have never thought possible. For our communities, more apprenticeships mean more taxpayer dollars being put to work to fix our infrastructure and boost our economy.
While many Americans view traditional four-year colleges as the “gold standard” of higher education, we are encouraging those ready for a life-changing career path to look to Kailee’s example and take the path less traveled.
Our infrastructure isn’t going to be fixed by folks with traditional four-year college degrees – it’s going to be fixed by folks like Kailee who work hard, get their hands dirty, and get paid to become an expert in their trade. We need the training and support that comes from union-run registered apprenticeships to open up more doors and develop our future workforce.
Jeff Stark is the Business Manager/Secretary-Treasurer of District Council 82. District Council 82 provides a voice for almost 3,500 workers in the finishing trades across Minnesota, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, and western Wisconsin. Our members are trained in a variety of industry needs, including industrial and commercial painting, drywall finishing, glazing, glass work, sign installation, convention workers, silk screen paint making and embroidery. Learn more at IUPAT82.org.