Wisconsin Workers Have ‘the Opportunity to Build Middle-Class, Unionized Careers’

Graphic by Francesca Daly, Photograph courtesy of Johntay Young

By Johntay Young
August 8, 2023

“The Biden administration’s infrastructure investments are creating a lot of trades jobs here in Wisconsin,” Johntay Young, an industrial apprenticeship instructor in Milwaukee, writes in an op-ed.

During my years as an industrial painter here in Wisconsin, I’ve spent many hours repairing the specialty coatings that protect the integrity of the steel on our bridges and water towers, ensuring they remain safe for the public. 

But a lot of our infrastructure here in Wisconsin, from Milwaukee to Chippewa Falls, has gone unrepaired since it was installed decades ago, particularly in economically disadvantaged communities. That disinvestment not only has physical impacts, such as children developing lead poisoning from old pipes; it also has psychological impacts to see your community fall into disrepair around you. 

Over the past two years, though, Wisconsin has seen the biggest influx of funding for community infrastructure in my lifetime. The infrastructure investments pushed forward by the Biden Administration and passed by Congress in 2021 are already having a huge impact on communities in our state, particularly areas that have been ignored by infrastructure investments and workforce development programs for decades. 

The union careers being created by these funds are not only going to sustain a lot of Wisconsin families for years to come, but are in the process of reviving the economies of whole communities. 

I first got into the trades in my 20s, in a job market where it was hard to find employment in general, but especially as a Black man. After spending some time as a roofing contractor and doing some other odd jobs, I eventually got hired by an industrial painting contractor. After nine years there, I realized I’d have a much better experience as a union painter, so I applied and got hired by a unionized signatory contracting company. 

Today, I serve as an industrial field organizer and industrial painting instructor for the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades (IUPAT) – District Council 7 in the Milwaukee area. In these roles, I spend my time recruiting new workers and contractors for our union, working to retain the workforce we already have, and teaching  the apprentices who represent the future of our union the skills that will help them flourish within the industrial painting industry. 

It feels like an important time to be involved in recruitment and instruction efforts, because the Biden administration’s infrastructure investments are creating a lot of trades jobs here in Wisconsin, and industrial painting is a big part of that. In my recruitment efforts for IUPAT, I’ve made it a major priority to talk to schools and community groups that represent the Black and brown communities in the Milwaukee area, as well as young people who need a viable path out of poverty. 

The high demand for workers in our field today is accelerating our efforts to expand our middle-class career opportunities to people and communities that have been left out in the past. We’re going to need hard workers from every possible background in order to build the workforce needed to take on the challenge of repairing and strengthening our infrastructure. 

Union apprenticeships are the single best way to train and build this workforce of the future, because our apprenticeships help workers get specialized certifications, learn safe job site procedures, and gain knowledge of proper technique – all while getting actual job site experience and making a livable wage from day one. Clearly recognizing the importance of these registered apprenticeship programs, the Biden administration has supported state and local efforts with millions of dollars for apprenticeship expansion across the country.

It’s important to note that we’re not just looking for people to fill jobs. Back in my 20s, before I joined my union, I had a job without any benefits and with a wage that didn’t allow me to save anything up. Today, after joining my union, I have a career. I can save for a rainy day, take vacations, and look forward to a comfortable retirement. The infrastructure projects happening in Wisconsin today are giving people – including people without a college degree – the opportunity to build middle-class, unionized careers that can have a generational effect on the growth of the unions as a whole. 

From accelerated removal of lead pipes in Milwaukee to the repair of the roads and bridges that connect our state, federal infrastructure investments are resulting in substantive improvements in both the lives of residents and the workers making these projects happen. 

And unlike many previous infrastructure efforts and job creation programs, new requirements for diversity and local residency are increasingly ensuring that jobs working on community infrastructure in cities like Milwaukee are going to the actual residents of Milwaukee, which means more money earned in and spent growing the local economy. 

It’s truly impressive to see how much investment the federal government is putting in to help communities across Wisconsin. With these funds, our communities are already seeing improvements – structurally, aesthetically, and economically. 

For many local residents who have never had a middle-class lifestyle, these funds are also opening doors to apprenticeships and careers that will lift up families to the middle class here in Milwaukee and statewide. All in all, the positive impacts of the infrastructure projects happening in Wisconsin today have only begun, and will surely be felt for generations to come. 

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