Apprenticeships Lead to In-demand Careers

Apprentices can avoid student debt while preparing for strong future


February 01, 2019


When David Polk talks to future apprentices, he speaks from experience.

After graduating from Milwaukee Trade and Technical High School (now Lynde and Harry Bradley Technology and Trade School) with three years of plumbing courses, he was at the top of the list to enter a plumbing apprenticeship program.

He started one week after walking across the stage and earning his diploma.

The apprenticeship was fully paid by his employer, where he worked four days per week. Polk took classes one day each week, including three at Milwaukee Area Technical College.

The son of a plumber and the grandson of the first African-American union plumbing apprentice in Wisconsin, he thought about breaking from tradition and entering another field. But after learning more about the opportunities and the family-sustaining income plumbing provides, he chose to continue the family trade into its third generation.

Polk completed his five-year apprenticeship before working as a licensed plumber for another five years and then serving as a plumbing inspector for the city of Milwaukee for 10 years.

Today, he is an associate dean at MATC, managing 26 different apprenticeship programs from his office at the college’s Oak Creek Campus. Apprenticeship opportunities at the college span from arborist, barber, construction electrician and cosmetologist to steamfitter, telecommunications installer, and tool and die maker.
(For a full list, visit and search: apprenticeship instruction.)


 “It feels great because I’m in a position to empower more individuals to get involved in the trades,” Polk says. “I’ve always been a longtime trades advocate, but now this position allows me to speak directly to high school students and individuals changing careers who want to go into apprenticeship now.”

At a time of record-breaking college debt — and with area school districts increasingly connecting students to career pathways in middle and high school — apprenticeships present a unique opportunity, he notes. As was the case when he was an apprentice, the programs are employer-paid.

“It is not your general entry-level type job. It’s a career,” Polk says. “Going through an apprenticeship is preparing an individual for something they can do for the rest of their life and raise a family on.”

High school students and families interested in an apprenticeship can contact him — or their high school to explore curricular options.

MATC’s Oak Creek Campus partners with local high schools to offer apprenticeship preparation programs in fields including carpentry, tool and die, heating/ventilation/air conditioning (HVAC) and power engineering. Students earn both high school and college credit for the courses they successfully complete at MATC. Some area high schools offer their own pre-apprenticeship courses that prepare students to enter an apprenticeship program at the college.

By senior year of high school, Polk recommends that an interested student begins to focus on a specific trade or apprenticeship option. MATC can provide information about the next steps depending on the program, including whether a prospective student should apply to the college or to a local trade union.

An apprenticeship program can lead to a decades-long, high-paying career working directly in the trades, or, in Polk’s case, the opportunity to earn his bachelor’s degree while working and ultimately, to share with students his knowledge of and passion for apprenticeship.

“A trades career can be working out in the field, or transitioning into management, or instruction,” he says. “You never know where a trade will take you.”

To learn more, contact:

David D. Polk
Milwaukee Area Technical College
Associate Dean of Apprenticeship and Trades