NewsLocal NewsIn Your NeighborhoodFond du Lac


High school program prepares students for skilled trades

Fond du Lac ACE Academy
Posted at 6:15 PM, Nov 16, 2022
and last updated 2022-11-16 19:15:54-05

FOND DU LAC (NBC 26) — High school senior Zach Shepro knew what he wanted to do with his career since freshman year of high school.

"I could never sit down in an office and work on [a] computer for the rest of my life," Shepro said. "I just love working with my hands love making stuff."

After graduation, Shepro plans to continue his apprenticeship with mechanical contractor J.F. Ahern. He said he got that opportunity through Fond du Lac High School's ACE Academy.

ACE—which stands for architecture, construction and engineering—partners its students with local contractors to not only give students hands-on experience working on construction projects but also to build connections for future careers.

The idea for ACE started when local contractors identified a need for skilled workers, as the Fond du Lac school district was looking to expand its construction program.

Bob Roehrig, former Vice President of Sales for County Materials Corporation is a key organizer for the ACE Academy. He said fundraising for the 6,000-square-foot building space began in 2014, and they were able to raise $1.3 billion before construction in 2017.

"We're finding that one of the important things we're trying to teach students here is that work ethic will get them a long way in the construction industry, or any job that they foresee in the future," said Roehrig.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, from 2021 to 2031, employment of civil engineers is projected to grow 7%, employment of architects is projected to grow 3%, and employment of construction laborers is projected to grow 4%.

But University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh Economics Department Chair Benjamin Artz said the outlook for construction jobs is uncertain.

"If you think of the professional trades, like the construction trades, contractors, plumbers, electricians, you know, drywall or roofers, trades like that the demand for those jobs is based on the housing market," Artz said. "But right now, with interest rates, high and mortgage rates, you know, above 7%, what you're seeing is a lot of homeowners sort of dialing back their spending on housing."

Artz said he believes this may be a short-term problem, but continuing education could be a solution.

"If the students are going to learn more about architecture, construction and engineering types of careers, and use that knowledge to gain more post-secondary education and training, that's great," Artz said.

Roehrig said ACE Academy can provide a pathway to that secondary education.

"What we're hoping to accomplish here is that we get the kids excited about construction," Roehrig said. "And hopefully, they'll continue their education that they may not have looked at doing before."

But for students who choose not to continue education after high school, Roehrig said the skills learned through this program could make them more valuable candidates for jobs.

"We're finding that as freshmen they come in and it's a different dynamic than when they leave us the senior," Roehrig said. "They get it they understand that. They've met the contractors, they know what the contractors are looking for."

According to the district, about 48% of students pursued two- or four-year degrees and those who did not.

"Well, that means for [52%] of students, what are they going to do?" ACE Academy instructor Vern Widmer said. "The students look at the skilled trades, great avenues, hard-working, good money, great careers. But by the same token, those going off to school, if you're going to be an architect or if you're going to be an engineer, get the hands-on experience."

Widmer said that the program has grown from 35 to 191 students over the past five years. And according to the school's website, over 48 companies are "actively involved" in the program.

Next fall, the school has plans to expand the program further by renovating the school’s woodshop.

Roehrig said this could increase the number of students in the program to 240.