From frustrated to fulfilled: An apprentice’s tale at Bucks arena
Not long ago, Earlivia Anderson felt stuck and frustrated in a warehouse job. Today, she’s building both the Milwaukee Bucks arena and a new career as a carpenter.
“I’m super excited to be here. I can’t wait to see what it looks like when it’s done,” said Anderson, 24, during a break on the busy concourse level Tuesday morning.
An apprentice, Anderson is eager to learn, and was part of a team installing protective wall panels in a bar storage area. She helped measure and cut a large panel so it would fit around a circuit breaker box and plumbing fittings.
Journeyman carpenter Carl Hodge spread a layer of adhesive, and then told Anderson it was time to hang the panel.
“Let’s use two of us. It’s kind of floppy,” Hodge advised as Anderson began to lift the piece off a work table. “Got the ladder ready?”
Minutes later, the perfectly cut piece was up. It’s a small step in a massive construction project, but for Anderson another milestone in her new career, which is only a few months old.
She’ll be an apprentice for four years, and then hopes to work as a union business agent and eventually a journeyman.
Such workers are key for the construction trades, which have struggled to attract young people. The Bucks have made developing and improving the workforce a key part of the $524 million arena project.
Anderson is one of about 230 apprentices among about 800 workers on the construction site just north of the BMO Harris Bradley Center. She’s been on the job a short time, and during a visit it was clear that Hodge is a solid mentor.
“I take a lot of pride in this,” Hodge said of working with apprentices.
“Keeping them safe is the first priority. If they get hurt, I can’t teach them.”
The Bucks say they’ve exceeded the hiring promises made several years ago when the team’s new owners secured $250 million in public funding for the arena. Since construction began a little more than a year ago, 3,200 workers completed safety training and 800 of those were apprentices, said Bridget Kraus, a spokeswoman for Mortenson Construction.
“We came in and made promises and we’ve kept them,” Bucks Senior Vice President Alex Lasry said of the ownership team, which includes his father, Marc Lasry, a New York hedge fund manager.
The Bucks also committed to paying a $15 per hour minimum wage.
“It’s something that we’re doing that’s important for the community,” Lasry said. “We want other companies to follow the model that we’ve started.”
The Bucks and Mortenson are paying special attention to apprentices Wednesday when they stage a luncheon for all arena project workers at the UWMilwaukee Panther Arena. The apprentices also will receive two tickets to the game against the Detroit Pistons that evening.
It’s part of the Bucks’ observance of the third annual National Apprenticeship Week, created by the U.S. Department of Labor. Nationally, such events are meant to highlight and attract interest to jobs in the construction trades.
The apprentice-journeyman relationship has changed significantly, said journeyman carpenter Dan Whiteaker.
“When I was working as an apprentice, we got screamed at for eight hours a day,” said Whiteaker. “Now, we make an effort to teach — and do it in a calm manner.”
Whiteaker, 37, is working with apprentice Anthony Lewis, who’s the same age. Things are going well, both men said.
“In this field you can’t be afraid to make a mistake,” said Lewis, an Army veteran. “If you get stuck on something, ask a question.”
The goal is to broaden workers’ skills and experience, Lasry said, adding that jobs in the trades provide a solid middle-class standard of living.
Lasry says the Bucks have honored commitments they made to employ city of Milwaukee residents and people who work for small or disadvantaged businesses. The team used an employment outreach effort that included a half-dozen town-hall-type meetings before construction began.
Workers like Anderson and Lewis could find themselves on arena-related projects for years, Lasry said. Future projects include the possible construction of a corporate headquarters complex just north of the arena, and redevelopment on the site of what is now the BMO Harris Bradley Center.
“This project is more than just building an arena. It’s building careers,” Lasry said.
“We want to say a big ‘thank you’ for building this thing.”
Apprentice carpenter Earlivia Anderson reads plans while installing panels in a room for a cooler at the new arena being constructed for the Milwaukee Bucks.