Chris Mambu Rasch, Building Advantage executive director: WRTP | BIG STEP is a nationally recognized workforce intermediary dedicated to connecting folks to family-supporting careers. For those that aren’t familiar, tell us a little bit about WRTP | BIG STEP.

Lindsay Blumer, president and CEO of WRTP | BIG STEP: WRTP (Wisconsin Regional Training Partnership) and BIG STEP (Building Industry Group Skilled Trades Employment Program) is a true workforce intermediary working in the construction, manufacturing and transportation and logistics sectors. Our partnership model includes engaging stakeholders in sectoral and industry focused ways to create and leverage workforce development processes to ensure that everyone has access to a career pathway and family supporting careers.

Chris Mambu Rasch: How is WRTP | BIG STEP specifically involved in the commercial construction industry?

Lindsay Blumer: An individual can come to WRTP | BIG STEP through a variety of routes. Often, it’s through the unions or a contractor, but they can also come directly to WRTP | BIG STEP or through Building Advantage’s website. Our staff begins by assessing their education and experience levels and creating an individualized success plan. We utilize Multi Craft Core curriculum, a certified program through the North American Building Trades Unions (NABTU), to get participants the necessary training, skills and education to succeed in an apprenticeship. In order for contractors to bring on lasting workers, it’s important that interested individuals understand how apprenticeship works and find the trade best suited to their skillset. Unions and employers are notified once these individuals are ready for apprenticeship.

The work we do is holistic in nature in the sense that every stakeholder plays an equal part in creating equitable pathways to apprenticeship and successful careers in construction. We’re simultaneously tackling career readiness, apprenticeship readiness and skill readiness, to create those pathways so that people can enter at any point of their life. All of our programming comes at no cost to participants because we believe it’s vitally important to support people to and through apprenticeship.

Chris Mambu Rasch: What is WRTP | BIG STEP’s relationship with the commercial construction industry?

Lindsay Blumer: We pride ourselves on being at the table with unions, contractors and employers to not only learn about their labor market needs and skills demands, but also to understand their vision for their workforce. Some want to diversify and we’re here to have the appropriate support to make that vision reality.

We also pride ourselves on seamlessly transitioning career seekers to and from the unions. An example of this would be someone walking into a union hall asking to start an apprenticeship. The union is able to refer them to WRTP | BIG STEP for any necessary educational or skill assessments and we can create an individualized training plan for that person to become apprenticeship ready. Because we have that referral relationship, we’re able to get individuals in the door right away, move them forward with any requirements and get them back to the union hall to start their apprenticeship. This pipeline works because unions know their referrals, and even their current apprentices, have the education, skills and certifications needed to excel in their apprenticeship.

Our staff is also integrated into the community, so we hear what the local workforce needs from an employer to be a good match. As a visible intermediary, we’re really trying to be responsive to both the local workforce and employer’s needs. Building Advantage also specifically funds our Construction Apprenticeship Readiness Coordinator position who works with local high schools to get students interested in trades careers. Engaging with young people is critical to creating tomorrow’s workforce.

Chris Mambu Rasch: There’s probably no other organization in the Milwaukee area that’s more involved in diversifying the construction industry. What does WRTP | BIG STEP need from the community to further your efforts?

Lindsay Blumer: Every year on average about 70% of our participants identify as a person of color and about 10-20% identifies as women, however, we know these statistics are not reflected in the industry yet. We’re very proud to have a diverse staff, and we want to see ourselves reflected in the construction industry as well. As we continue to make WRTP | BIG STEP’s presence known in the community, we hope to see more individuals interested in the construction field.

What we need to be aware of when we talk about the labor market, and how dynamic it is. As interest rates rise, we’re going to see unemployment increase. While the state of Wisconsin’s unemployment rate is hovering around 3%, there are several pockets within our community in Milwaukee that hover around 15-17%. These pockets are especially important for us as a workforce intermediary because it means that we’re investing in our neighbors and improving our community through well-paying careers. As a community partner and as unions and employers, we’re all working together to ensure that pathways are still available through turbulent economic conditions.

Chris Mambu Rasch: One mechanism that Milwaukee utilizes to build up local labor and communities is RPP (Residents Preference Program) certification. How is WRTP | BIG STEP involved in that process?

Lindsay Blumer: Firstly, RPP was created to utilize City of Milwaukee residents as part of a project’s workforce on specific city-funded and private development projects. To gain certification, residents must fall under certain income and unemployment requirements. As a certifier of RPP requirements for the City of Milwaukee, WRTP | BIG STEP keeps an open relationship with the City of Milwaukee to ensure that individuals are up to date on their RPP certification. We also work with employers who want to hire RPP certified individuals. WRTP | BIG STEP performs on-site RPP certification at career fairs, union halls, workplaces and job sites to ensure that we’re maximizing this opportunity for our residents.

RPP is not the end-all solution to increasing diversity in construction, but it’s a great tool. Our community, whether it’s employers or unions or other entities, understands that hiring from our community is vitally important to building community wealth. We actively go out into the community to certify individuals and raise the profile of RPP because we know how much it can benefit our area.

Chris Mambu Rasch: The bipartisan Infrastructure Law as well as the Inflation Reduction Act, has credits specifically designed to benefit the construction and manufacturing industries. What’s your strategy for how Wisconsin can take advantage of these funds?

Lindsay Blumer: The infrastructure funds released from the federal government is an economic down payment on the future growth of our country. In Wisconsin, we have to be flexible and agile enough to advocate for and access those funds. WRTP | BIG STEP plays a vital role in accessing these funds, but it’s going to take collaboration with all of our stakeholders, including Building Advantage, to make sure that Wisconsin gets its fair share. We need to be at the table and be loud about our successes here in Wisconsin so that we secure funding for more building, job creation and community investment.

We’re also able to leverage our status as a 501c3 nonprofit to be an anchor institution for this funding. If our partners are unified in their position for WRTP | BIG STEP to leverage these funds, our status means we can access funding quicker than other states without organizations like us. We already know how to get the job done and we have the unique opportunity to work with the unions and their training facilities to begin training in new technologies like EV charging stations for example. Agility in creating and implementing certified curriculum is what makes union construction special.

With an influx of resources from the federal government, there have been organizations popping up here and there saying they do training, but they’re not certified programs. WRTP | BIG STEP has a self-imposed standard of quality that we must meet, which includes credentialed programs, because we think it’s vitally important to the industry. The union construction industry values safety above all else, and without accredited, multi-faceted training, that safety standard slips.

Chris Mambu Rasch: As a nationally recognized organization, what do you think you’re doing differently compared to other markets around the country?

Lindsay Blumer: We often hear about programs in bigger marketplaces like New York, California or Texas and to have Wisconsin represented on a national stage is special. What we believe we’re doing right is fully utilizing our resources, determining effective solutions and capturing our results. We received ARPA funds because we could speak very directly about how that investment was used to not just provide COVID recovery, but to also drive change in the sector, to diversify and to ensure that people had equitable career pathways available to them. We’re also leveraging our partner relationships and demonstrating to the rest of the country that through collaboration, you can succeed.

Chris Mambu Rasch: In recent months, WRTP | BIG STEP has been on a roll. You won the UW-Milwaukee Melvin Lurie 25th annual Labor Management Cooperation Prize, you were named as the workforce development organization of the year by The Daily Reporter, the U.S. Department of Labor named WRTP | BIG STEP as a national apprenticeship ambassador and you spoke on a panel at the American Rescue Plan Workforce Summit at the White House. What is it about your efforts that’s led others to recognize your work this year?

Lindsay Blumer: Accolades are very nice and wonderful, especially from such respected institutions, but ultimately it comes down to the work and to the staff here who are committed to seeing this organization help our community. Everyone at WRTP | BIG STEP believes that it’s a privilege to do this work every day and their dedication is the reason for our success.

In the past couple of years, we’ve looked at this organization through a lens of growth and figuring out how to best achieve very specific outcomes on behalf of the community. We’re ultimately stewards of the investments that the local unions, the state and the federal government make in us, and we take that very seriously. In order to be good stewards, we have to make sure that we are always advocating for our unions, employers and participants and that we’re involved in important conversations from the ground up.

I think this combination really makes that true workforce intermediary model work. And when it works, we get to see some really cool things happen and lives changed.

Chris Mambu Rasch: WRTP | BIG STEP really is changing lives by introducing life-changing career opportunities. Is there a success story that sticks out to you?

Lindsay Blumer: We have so many stories that stick out, but the most recent cohort of individuals that came through our MC3 training in summer 2022 was an interesting group. We had a mixture of both youth and adult participants, which actually ended up being really a neat intergenerational opportunity for everyone to learn from each other.

We were able to do a roundtable recently with the participants and they all seemed to have learned from one another. They were able to create a community amongst youth and adults, and I thought that was such a cool opportunity that we were able to witness.

This group was able to work on several projects as a cohort including building a bench that was auctioned off at our annual Cheers to Careers Fundraising event benefiting career seekers. The bench generated hundreds of dollars which will go towards supporting the next MC3 cohort.

Chris Mambu Rasch: What attracted you to this work at WRTP | BIG STEP?

Lindsay Blumer: I come from a long line of union tradespeople, and I truly believe that access to those career pathways changed the course of my life. It was always vitally important to me, whether it was in higher education, professional development or working to connect our community with our workforce, that there was always a support system in place for all of the stakeholders. We all have the responsibility to keep career pathways open and equitable, because it we don’t, who will?

Family sustaining careers in construction and manufacturing can’t be a ‘best kept secret.’ It needs to be shouted from the rooftops because it truly does have life changing properties.