Everyone needs someone to look up to, someone who provides guidance, support, and inspiration. Many of us can point to several people in our lives that fill this role. For Brian Strothers, it started with his uncle Ronnie and father, Brian, Sr. Brian remembers when he was younger, he helped the two of them as they worked on building a house. After that, Brian wanted to do everything with his own two hands, from building model cars to fixing things around the house. “I’m like a hands-on guy,” says Brian.
From the time he was six years old, Brian remembers Ronnie talking about the carpenters’ apprenticeship, and the idea of becoming a master carpenter like his uncle has stuck with him ever since. But that doesn’t mean the journey from aspiring carpenter to master carpenter is an easy one. Brian would guess that he had to take the entrance exam for the carpenters’ apprenticeship three or four times. After failing it the first time, he was encouraged to visit WRTP/BIG STEP for help, but he was hesitant at first.
“I was trying to do it myself,” he said. “I thought maybe if I just studied harder, I could do it myself instead of going to the program, like the program might take longer for me.”
After failing the test the second time, though, Brian decided that visiting WRTP/BIG STEP was a good option. He came for the Apprenticeship Readiness Tutoring program, took a few assessments to gauge his level, and got partnered with tutors who could help him practice basic math and algebra.
“Every session I had to do like two or three packets of math problems. One packet took a day or two. When you get three of them, that will take you like all week because you have to put them aside at times. But I made sure to get them all done.”
Meanwhile, Brian worked two jobs, unrelated to construction, to support himself and his wife, Quacia. They were married in 2014, and he counts her as his greatest supporter and motivator.
While he was going to WRTP/BIG STEP for tutoring, Brian’s father told him about Our Savior’s Lutheran Church, where Pastor Teresa Thomas-Boyd told him that they were trying to find people from the city to work in construction. Pastor Teresa leads the Church Construction Coalition, a partner of WRTP/BIG STEP and the Community Workforce Partnership. The goal of the Church Construction Coalition is to help promote opportunities for local Milwaukee residents to enter careers in the trades, which is particularly important given the new Bucks arena and other major construction projects underway in Milwaukee.
Brian spoke with Pastor Teresa, who encouraged some candidates to go to WRTP/BIG STEP for tutoring and other services. “I was already in BIG STEP,” Brian said, “so it was like a big plus for me.” Soon Pastor Teresa helped Brian get an interview with Hetzel Sanfilippo, a Milwaukee area commercial drywall contractor. They immediately saw that Brian was a great candidate, and it wasn’t long before they hired him. “I was happy they believed in me and hired me on,” says Brian.
After passing the carpenters’ apprenticeship exam with help from WRTP/BIG STEP, Brian began working with Hetzel Sanfilippo in April 2017. He works with and learns from a journeyman carpenter, and he enjoys trying to learn as much as he can. “My first journeyman was David Smith, and he’s been there for ten plus years. He has been very helpful. He is still helping me to this day,” says Brian.
Brian’s first job was at the Bucks training facility, where he worked from April until the end of May. “I liked it a lot,” Brian says. Now, when he drives past the completed facility with his wife, he can tell her, “I helped build that.” Those are proud moments for the both of them.
Since the end of May, Brian has been working at Froedtert & the Medical College of Wisconsin. He performs a range of tasks, from interior framing to drywall to installing steel beams. He continues to learn as much as he can, from the hands-on skills to some of the business concepts integral to all construction projects.
Brian finds that the biggest challenge people face is sticking to their goals. He has seen many people give up on their goals after hitting their very first obstacle. Basic math and algebra was Brian’s major obstacle to passing the apprenticeship exam, and he recommends WRTP/BIG STEP to others seeking to get into an apprenticeship.
In addition to the support he’s received from others, Brian also finds motivation by always keeping his goals in mind. “I have a goal in mind when I work,” Brian says, “the goal that I want to be somebody. When I finish my apprenticeship here and become a journeyman, hopefully I can own my own business and do something for myself. So I’m working now for that.”
For Brian, owning his own business is more than just setting his own schedule. “I can change a lot of lives,” he says. “It’s a good feeling to build something and to look back on it and say, ‘I did that. I built that.’”