Experience gained on Northwestern Mutual tower builds construction careers

Northwestern Mutual Tower & Commons

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When the Milwaukee Common Council approved $54 million in tax incremental financing for the Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Co. office tower project in 2013, the announcement didn’t just mean big changes to the Milwaukee skyline. For local construction workers, along with unemployed and underemployed city residents, the project ushered in an opportunity for steady work–and, in some cases, a path to a new career.

The Northwestern Mutual tower was Andrew LaVigne’s first union construction job. LaVigne, 36, had been working as a landscaper for eight years when he and his wife began talking about starting a family. He was drawn to the trades by the stability afforded by union insurance and a pension. LaVigne got his start working on the Northwestern Mutual Tower and Commons project as an employee of Milwaukee-based JCP Construction in 2016. He spent the year building metal and steel framing for fire-rated walls throughout the building.

The Northwestern Mutual tower’s tax incremental financing came with a few hiring stipulations from the city. The company was required to employ a minimum number of local small business enterprises and unemployed or underemployed residents from Milwaukee’s poorest neighborhoods.

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Northwestern Mutual has thus far met those goals, and then some.

According to the latest Northwestern Mutual Tower and Commons SBE and RPP participation report, which includes data through the end of 2016, SBEs in Milwaukee have been awarded $121.5 million in contracts or commitments—that’s 32.1 percent of the total amount spent on applicable construction and professional services.

Milwaukee residents eligible under the Residents Preference Program, which requires contractors to hire a certain number of unemployed or underemployed city residents, had performed 45.1 percent of the construction hours on the project through the end of 2016.

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The Northwestern Mutual Tower and Commons project created 2,600 construction-related jobs. Credit: Andrew Lavigne

Those numbers exceed the TIF requirements, which obligated Northwestern Mutual to award at least 25 percent of applicable contracts to Milwaukee SBEs and 40 percent of labor hours to RPP-eligible Milwaukeeans.

Ken Kraemer, executive director of Building Advantage, the Construction Labor Management Council of Southeast Wisconsin, credits the project with propelling forward not just development in the city, but also the careers of Milwaukee tradespeople.

“It’s all about careers,” Kraemer said. “We want to change people’s lives and give them the opportunity to get this training and see that when they finish the apprenticeship training, nothing can hold them back. The sky’s the limit.”

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Apprentices in trades across the construction industry earn while they learn, working alongside experienced journeymen on jobsites while completing educational requirements outside the work day. LaVigne is now in his second year as a carpenter apprentice. Once he fulfills his apprenticeship requirements – which include four years of on-the-job experience – he’ll be eligible to become a journeyman carpenter.

“I worked with three journeymen (at Northwestern Mutual) and those three guys that trained me were some of the best that I worked with so far in my career,” LaVigne said. “A lot of apprentices don’t get to work with a guy who takes the time to actually teach them. That’ll be a lasting impression from the job.”

Brandi Archambeau-Fisher also considers herself fortunate that the Northwestern Mutual tower was her first job site as an aspiring electrical apprentice.

After working for We Energies in the collections department, Archambeau-Fisher, 30, decided she’d rather be working in the field than in the office. She started working on the Northwestern Mutual tower in 2016 as a material handler delivering parts to electricians, then moved up to wiring fire alarms and setting up Internet and phone lines.

The day-to-day work on the tower was grueling at times, particularly in the dead of Wisconsin winter.

“It’s real cold when you’re up on the 20th floor,” LaVigne said.

But braving the elements was worth it, and LaVigne says he feels a sense of pride when he drives by Milwaukee’s second-tallest tower today with his wife and 16-month-old son.

Many of the Milwaukeeans who worked on the Northwestern Mutual jobsite have found sustained work in the construction industry. Both LaVigne and Archambeau-Fisher are at work now on the new Milwaukee Bucks arena. LaVigne works for Wall-tech Inc. and continues to frame and build fire-rated walls. Archambeau-Fisher works in material handling for Staff Electric Co. Inc. and on the distribution crew in the arena’s switchgear room. She is also studying for the entrance exam to become an electrical apprentice.

As a single mother, Archambeau-Fisher says she values her new career path. The financial stability the career offers is important, she says, but so is the opportunity to be a role model to her two young children.

“I’d drive past the building and say, ‘That’s where mom works,’ and my 9-year-old would talk about it at school with her friends,” Archambeau-Fisher said. “She’d be all proud, and she’d tell her teachers. When I went to parent-teacher conferences, they were all talking to me about it, saying, ‘That’s so cool.’”

See the rest of the Special Section on the Northwestern Mutual Tower & Commons here.

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