McKenzie Regional Workforce Center: Cultivating the next generation

McKenzie Regional Workforce Center: Cultivating the next generation

At the Boys and Girls Clubs of Dane County, a majority of youth members will tell you the only post-secondary education options they learned about growing up were college or the military. 

That’s it, two options laid out for their future. 

For most of these youth, the skilled trades were an afterthought — if they even knew what the skilled trades were. 

“Not everyone is destined for college. Every kid has been told that’s their path from Mom, Dad, teachers, but they don’t always share that they disagree,” said Alan Branch, vice president of Workforce Development at the Boys and Girls Clubs of Dane County. “I was one of those kids. I was the silent kid.” 

According to several career development studies, children begin to eliminate potential career paths as young as the fifth grade. The construction labor shortage both in Dane County and across the nation illustrates what happens when  the skilled trades, like carpentry and welding, are forgotten. 

“We want to change that,” said Branch.  

Since its grand opening this past July in Fitchburg, the McKenzie Regional Workforce Center, a collaboration between the Boys and Girls Clubs and the Madison Area Builders Association, has worked to train and connect a new generation of young people to the skilled trades.

The labor shortage in construction, while exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, is not a new issue. In the midst of the 2008 recession, the industry faced a mass resignation, with more than half of construction workers going bankrupt or being forced to retire. In the state of Wisconsin, though, the labor market is facing a different struggle. 

Inside the McKenzie Regional Workforce Center in Fitchburg. Photo by Cate Schiller.

“We are getting older,” said UW–Madison Clinical Associate Professor Laura Dresser, who runs the Center on Wisconsin Strategy. “We always have pretty low relative measures of unemployment because more people are retiring right now than aging into work.” 

Losing labor in the construction industry has led to product and material delays, a slowed supply chain and much longer build times. According to Chad Lawler, executive director of the Madison Area Builders Association, construction projects that used to take nine months can now take up to 15 or 18 months to complete. 

“We always hear from our members that they could build twice as many homes if they had the labor to do it,” Lawler said. 

With this in mind, Lawler, Branch and local Madison philanthropist John McKenzie joined efforts to focus on the younger generation. Enter the McKenzie Regional Workforce Center, a fully functional teaching facility equipped with classrooms, hands-on workshops and even simulator technology. Open to children from ages five to 18 during after school hours, the center runs programming ranging in focus from early awareness to career exploration to apprenticeship preparation. 

While the center is open to all, it primarily looks to elevate Madison’s underprivileged youth. About 80% of the McKenzie Center’s members are people of color, and 74% are living at or below the federal poverty level. At the McKenzie Center, everyone is given a chance to excel in the trades.

“We’re gonna give them a space here where they can explore opportunities, where they can build their character and confidence, where they can succeed,” Branch said. 

In the center’s workshops, kids collaborate with experts and their peers to build hands-on projects and, to begin, learn their way around tools like hammers and saws. Once they’ve found a more specific interest, the McKenzie Center then takes groups on field trips to job sites and brings potential employers in to discuss career opportunities with interested students. In an apprenticeship, high school students are paid to work on a job site for two to three hours a day and return to school afterward.

Since piloting the programming in June 2022, the Boys and Girls Clubs and the Madison Area Builders Association have provided more than 1,000 youth with opportunities to learn about careers in the skilled trades, and since opening its doors in July, the McKenzie Regional Workforce Center has welcomed nearly 150 more. In the future, the center hopes to become the career and technical education venue for every middle school in Dane County. 

“We want to make sure the youth know we’re not only telling them about a career path, but that we want them to be in it,” Lawler said. “We want to work with them to get them into the industry.”

The McKenzie Center, a trailblazer of sorts, was the initial group to push forward a partnership of this kind, and just months later, nine other communities across the country have launched similar pilot programs with the Boys and Girls Clubs of America and the National Association of Homebuilders. In 2024, another 20 communities are expected to follow suit. The McKenzie Center and its founders are more than happy to lead by example.

“There are some great young people coming out of this program,” Lawler said. “They’re individuals that you’re gonna want to hire.”

The McKenzie Regional Workforce Center in Fitchburg provides training in the skilled trades to local students. Photo by Cate Schiller.
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