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The WCBA's Tour of Homes will take place the second and third weekends of July.

WCBA's Tour of Homes spotlights houses and the future of the jobs that made them

When the Washington County Builders Association (WCBA) opens up its 47th annual Tour of Homes event next month, it won't just be modeling some lovely houses. It'll also be modeling a future for area students in the very skilled trades that built and crafted those homes.

For years, the WCBA – formerly the West Bend Builders Association – has supported West Bend High School seniors with an informal scholarship, each year gifting a total of typically $2,000 spread four ways to students enrolling at Moraine Park Technical College for one of its several skilled trade programs, including Building Trades Construction Worker; Air Conditioning, Heating and Refrigeration Technology; Electricity and more.

Over time, says WCBA president Matt McCabe, the scholarship was expanded to include qualified children and young workers amongst any of its trade association members, as well as given an official name: the WCBA Trade Scholarship Fund.

"We have a whole litany in our bylaws of prerequisites that must be met – a 2.5 grade point average, attendance, a letter that they write, etc. – and it's basically first come, first served for applications," McCabe said. "If you're an applicant, you ask for it and you meet the qualifications, you get it."

During its Tour of Homes celebration, the WCBA – approaching a half-century as an organization – aims to make that process even easier for interested Washington County students, offering not just an informational session but a free scholarship application to every qualified attendee at the event.

"It's been a long-standing tradition of the association that one of our missions is to foster the education and the encouragement of our community's young workforce to consider a vocation in the trades," McCabe explained. "As a trade organization, it only makes sense."

It makes even more sense considering the dire state of the skilled laborer and home building industry over the past few decades – and especially since the recession of a decade ago. In an Angie's List piece from Paul F.P. Pogue published in January, the National Electrical Contractors Association's numbers note that while 7,000 electricians join the workforce every year, 10,000 retire.

Meanwhile, Rob Dietz, Chief Economist and Senior Vice President for Economics and Housing Policy for the National Association of Home Builders, told Pogue, "The construction industry lost 1.5 million workers during the recession, and we've only brought back about 600,000. The median age of a construction worker right now is more than 40 years old. The long-term problem is, who's going to be the next generation of construction workers?"

"It's cultural," posited McCabe. "The age of technology and the habits of young people and what they're exposed to, there is far less of an emphasis on working or thinking about a career in the trades than there was in days gone by.

"There's just a mental shift culturally that when you're a typical youngster growing up today, it's preprogrammed in your head that you're going to college. That's just the precondition that they grow up with, and by the time they get to the formative, late high school years, when they're starting to think, 'Gosh, maybe I'm not college material after all,' it's more and more unlikely that they've been either in a family of working trades parents or exposed to that notion."

However, there is movement and progress toward optimism. In addition to locally scaled efforts like the WCBA's yearly scholarships – and 2017's particular push – Mike Rowe, the star of the popular Discovery Channel TV show "Dirty Jobs," has repeatedly spoken out about promoting skilled trades, including testifying before the U.S. Senate during Commerce Committee meetings in 2011.

Indeed, while McCabe admits he can sound pessimistic, he still predicts a turnaround.

"Things are cyclical," he noted. "As the trades become more and more once again visible and relevant as a viable option for young people – thinking, 'I know this guy making $75,000, and he's a carpenter,' at the same time they're hearing a friend saying he graduated from college with $150,000 in debt and he can't get a job for $40,000 – natural forces will swing the pendulum back the other way. But we're just in the lowest swing right now

"The momentum that is needed to push that pendulum faster toward the right side of things is messages from folks in the trades, getting the value of a career in the trades out there to young people."

And McCabe believes the WCBA and the WCBA Trade Scholarship Fund can be an important part of that push.

For those interested in attending the Tour of Homes, the event runs July 8-9 and 15-16 from 1 until 5 p.m., as well as Wednesday, July 12 from 6 to 8 p.m. For more information on the event, or the scholarship, visit the WCBA's website.

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