2021 Fred Case Award Finalist: Local Loyalty

Third-generation design-build firm owner works with local high schools to create programs and scholarships to drive youth toward the trades.

authors Emily Blackburn | October 13, 2021

Chris Stebnitz is a third-generation owner of the design-build firm Stebnitz Builders, which has been operating in Southeast Wisconsin for 49 years. “My grandfather started the company in ’72, basically doing small jobs,” he says. “It wasn’t the high-end model we have going right now, and he wasn’t big into design.”

His father and uncle took over the business later and expanded it into something that would be recognizable as the large, design-build company that it is today. Stebnitz bought the firm in 2009 and worked with his uncle to keep the company strong through the Great Recession.

He eventually expanded away from the general contractor label, opening up a subsidiary business called Custom Kitchen Design, which focuses on custom kitchens, design and installation as well as fabricating its own countertops. In 2020, with a total of 115 remodeling jobs, Stebnitz Builders’ total remodeling revenue topped $4.3 million, only a slight decrease from 2019’s revenue.

Stebnitz, like many in the remodeling and construction industry, has experienced the effects of the skilled-labor shortage firsthand. Hundreds of thousands of skilled tradespeople left the industry during the 2008 recession, and now many more are aging out and retiring, leaving huge swaths of the industry understaffed and under-qualified.

Stebnitz’ first initiative involved creating a Youth Apprenticeship Program in partnership with the Elkhorn Area High school to give students interested in carpentry and construction a hands-on learning experience on a project site as they complete their high school diplomas. “As we examined the longevity of our field crew, we realized that we needed to start adding to our crew with young adults to fill the labor gap and combat the impending retirement of several carpenters,” Stebnitz explains.

Stebnitz started the program four or five years ago, but he says they really started getting involved in creating those connections with the high schools over 10 years ago. “Initially, we would hire high school students to work with us during the summer months, but this was temporary employment, as they would return to school in the fall. So, we started a while ago getting kids to come out to our jobsites with their classes, have them come out and talk to our lead carpenter, talk to our production manager.”

From there, the field trips grew into the apprenticeship that has allowed kids to dedicate part of the school day toward being on the jobsite for school credit. “It’s grown now to where we have some more structured people who have gone through the program to the point where we have two kids that have come through the program and are now working full-time.” Stebnitz Builders also participates in career fairs for middle and high schoolers promoting the Youth Apprenticeship Program, as well as skilled-trade career paths in general.

Hand-in-hand with the Youth Apprenticeship Program, Stebnitz is also working to combat labor shortages by creating a $1,000 scholarship opportunity to graduating students pursuing a career in the skilled trades. These fields may include carpentry, plumbing, electrical, heating and cooling or other industry-related careers.

“I’ve been associated with them for years with our Liquid Builder’s Association, and other non-profits have offered scholarships to our students,” Stebnitz says. “For the first few years it was a little quiet, but we got our feet set.” Information for the scholarship was shared to all the eligible schools and was promoted on their website and social media.

The latest recipient of the scholarship was a student whom Stebnitz had known through working with him in different sports. “We couldn’t be more pleased to offer this experience and scholarships opportunity to the students of Walworth Country. We are hopeful that with each passing year our Stebnitz Builders Scholarship gains popularity,” Stebnitz says. QR

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