Madison Memorial High School junior Brendan Franch has a marketable skill among his peers: He can tell his friends exactly what is wrong with their cars.

“I love being able to apply my knowledge," he said. "They will ask me questions about their cars and I can diagnose it. It’s pretty fun.”

Brendan started taking career and technical education classes during his freshman year at Memorial, and said one of the most valuable aspects of his experience is the chance to learn from people who are working in the field.

“It is amazing to see all these people come in for us. It is inspiring for me and other people that I know who are interested in the trades,” he said.

Brendan’s reaction is just what Bill Clingan hopes for in his work with Big Step, a workforce development organization dedicated to recruiting and training people interested in trades like construction and manufacturing.

Big Step recently partnered with the Madison Metropolitan School District for Career Pathways In Construction. Over the course of two weeks, Big Step brings trade workers to Madison's four comprehensive high schools for a day of hands-on learning in trades like plumbing and electrical work for middle and high school students.   

Clingan said the partnership began after local students participated in Big Step’s summer programs and wanted more opportunities to network with experts in their fields.

“Last year, we thought, ‘How do we do it so it’s not a casual experience, how can we make it more interactive?'” Clingan said.

With Pathways to Construction, Big Step visits MMSD's four comprehensive high schools, allowing more than 750 students to participate in hands-on demonstrations led by local trade workers.

Clingan said, on average, trade workers in the region earn between $27 and $50 an hour, depending on experience.

“These are great careers, but people have to be exposed to them, engaged and serious about it,” he said. “We do a lot of messaging about the expectations for the careers.”

Barrett Locatelli is an electrician who is a member of the local 159 chapter of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, a trade union. He is fairly new to the field, and told the students in the small group that he valued being able to make money while developing his craft.

“You can earn and learn at the same time,” he said. “In the trades, you make money and you learn a skill, something that nobody can take away from you.”

In addition to local unions, Clingan also works with community organizations like Centro Hispano to reach a diverse set of students. Clingan strives to get women and people of color in front of students as often as possible so students can see their identities reflected in the fields.

“We try to get folks in front of the youth who look like them so they can see themselves doing this career,” he said.

Brynn Fuller is an eighth-grader at Jefferson Middle School. She said her technology class spends a lot of time in Memorial’s career and technical education classrooms learning skills like woodshop. Although Brynn is still deciding whether she wants to continue learning about the trades, she appreciates the exposure.

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“I like the woods lab, we get to make it our own,” she said.

Miles Tokheim teaches automotive, woodshop and construction classes at Memorial. Tokheim and his colleagues started working with middle school students two years ago to educate them about Memorial’s CTE options as early as possible.

Historically, students sign up for their first CTE class in their sophomore or junior year. Tokheim thinks if middle school students know about the program before they start at Memorial, they will explore the classes earlier in their high school careers.

“Once the kids come down here, they usually stay with us. It is just a matter of how soon we can catch them,” he said. “Our middle school kids were not getting that exposure. ... It’s been a fun partnership. This is a huge opportunity for these kids. There has been a college push for so long, but there are a ton of other opportunities.”

That early exposure paid off for Brendan, who said learning about the trades has developed his capacity as a leader. As president of Memorial’s chapter of Skills USA and a statewide officer for the activity, Brendan gets to travel around Wisconsin and the country to compete in technical competitions in the automotive and engineering fields.

“It is really crucial that people realize we have opportunities like this in city-based schools. It is kind of hidden, so a lot of people don’t know we have an auto shop or wood shop. I just like to spend my time here,” he said.

“This is my thing.”