Cullen Career Fair gives students hands-on trade experience

By Nick Crow

April 30, 2015

JANESVILLE — A skills gap is creating a need for young laborers in an industry that’s beginning to face a shortage, said Joe Schwengels, construction superintendent at J.P. Cullen & Sons.

That’s why Cullen decided to host its first construction career fair Thursday.

“Our goal is to really highlight careers in construction in a different way than a traditional career fair,” Schwengels said. “The goal is to get them some hands-on experience to see what we’re all about.”

Schwengels said many students don’t know about careers in construction or the moneymaking potential.

“The apprenticeship programs are 70 percent on-the-job training, and many students are reimbursed upon completion,” Schwengels said. “We’re looking for people with a competency in math and a mechanical aptitude who are willing to learn and work hard.”

Cullen for 20 years has had an apprentice committee that works to obtain top talent to grow the future of the industry. The group planned Thursday’s career fair for more than a year, he said.

Since the 1980s, high schools have focused on steering students toward four-year degrees, but that career path isn’t for everyone, Schwengels said.

“There’s a misconception that construction jobs are dirty, dead-end jobs,” he said. “But that’s not the truth by any means.”

Students from throughout Rock County, Walworth County and southern Dane County participated in Thursday’s event.

Students were given access to hands-on demonstrations in areas such as welding, iron working, brick laying and carpentry at booths staffed by trades people who shared experiences, training and advice.

On hand were companies such as Westphal & Company: Electrical Construction, DeGarmo Plumbing & Piping, Ahern Fire Protection and Butters-Fetting Co. Mechanical Contractors, as well as several local trade unions.

“I think it’s a great opportunity to show kids what’s out there,” said Dave Luety, Parkview technical education and engineering teacher. “There’s a high need in the skilled trades. Baby boomers are retiring. In some cases, these kids can make twice as much as someone with a four-year degree. It’s great for the kids to be exposed to it.”

Luety said people should realize the need for workers in the skilled trades. A change of mentality in schools is needed to make sure it is presented as an option, he said.

“Kids aren’t focused on all of their options,” Luety said. “All of their choices need to be intertwined.”

Beloit Memorial High School junior Jamison Gonfiantini said he thinks many students don’t realize the importance of these jobs.

“I’m glad I came today,” he said. “I learned some new things and about some jobs I might want to look into.”

Schwengels said it’s important to raise awareness about these jobs so that capable people fill them.

In 2015, construction revenue is expected to increase by 8.1 percent, and the demand for skilled laborers is projected to increase 18.81 percent by 2020, he said.

“We have made it a priority to work with surrounding school districts to educate them on the careers available in the trades for students,” Schwengels said. “With a state accredited apprenticeship, students have every opportunity for a successful, noble profession as a skilled trade worker.”

“That is how I began my career over 25 years ago,” he said.