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Project Milwaukee: In-depth reporting on vital issues in the region.

What's Working, Missing in Efforts to Address Skills Gap

Erin Toner

As we’ve been reporting this week, Wisconsin employers say they have plenty of decent-paying jobs open, but cannot find qualified workers. And the skills gap or shortage is expected to grow, as experienced baby-boomers retire. WUWM’s Erin Toner has Thursday’s installment of our series, Project Milwaukee: Help Wanted. She observed programs successfully pumping skilled job applicants into the pipeline. Yet she learned, that what’s working – is also what’s missing.

Whenever 17-year-old Richard Guetzke used to envision a career in manufacturing, he thought about his relatives who worked long hours in dingy factories.

“And then like the first day that I came here, I look at JW Speaker and I’m sitting there looking at this clean building where it looks like everybody’s not sitting there like, oh, I have to do this now. Kind of changed my perspective,” Guetzke says.

Sunlight streams through windows along the ceiling at JW Speaker Corporation’s new factory in Germantown. Architecturally, the facility looks more like a Silicon Valley startup than a shop that makes lighting systems for cars and trucks.

Guetzke is part of a regional program called “Second Chance Partners.” It places struggling high school students at manufacturing companies for classroom learning and work experience. Guetzke says through jobs here and at other companies, he’s found he enjoys learning and working, and has a knack for reading blueprints.

“Recently I started a job at Mahuta Tool. They’re pretty much showing me the blueprints of what they’re making and I can visualize that part and then eventually run a machine that’ll make it. And if everything goes according to plan, I’m going to hopefully get a career with them,” Guetzke says.

While in the program, the students get paid for the hours they work, and if they complete it, they earn their diploma and an occupational certificate from the state. Funding for Second Chance Partners comes from the participating businesses and the local school district.

One of Guetzke’s classmates is just as confident he’ll face good odds when graduating this spring. Eighteen-year-old Mark Anton has become skilled in welding and even won awards at high school competitions.

“I could probably go out and get a job right away just cause there’s a lot of people looking for welders right now,” Anton says.

State officials praise Second Chance Partners for exposing young people to technical and trades careers.

Reggie Newson is secretary of the Department of Workforce Development.

“Young people actually can see what it’s like to work in a manufacturing facility. Oftentimes you drive past a Super Steel and you see it but you don’t know what’s going on inside a Super Steel. People see it and they’ll know that these are jobs and success in here,” Newson says.

For decades, high schools dropped vocational programs to save money and convert to college prep, meaning most students never set foot in a metals shop. Newson says many high schools are now enhancing their vocational curriculum. More offer robotics classes, while others are partnering with employers to provide practical experience.

Keith Coursin sees many efforts headed in the right direction. Yet he says what they all need is a major boost. For example, he wishes the state’s technical colleges could meet the needs of more employers.

Coursin is president of Desert Aire, a Germantown company that makes custom dehumidification systems.

“Some of the HVAC programs in particular at MATC on the south campus, they have that basic level. We need to take them to another level,” Coursin says.

While Coursin lobbies education leaders to add programs, MATC Welding Instructor Sue Silverstein says state budget cuts are hampering her ability to train more students. She teaches at the Oak Creek campus.

“Our budget constantly gets cut. It’s hard in this economy. Technical colleges – our budgets keep getting cut and it’s hard to keep up.”

“There’s a tremendous number of organizations and people that want to step up and help. Here’s the problem – we need a plan,” says Tim Sullivan, head of the former mining company Bucyrus International and special consultant on workforce issues to Gov. Walker.

Sullivan issued a report on Wisconsin’s skills gap in August, recommending nearly 20 steps he believes will begin to address the problem. He says current efforts are piecemeal, so stakeholders must agree on common goals and a path forward.

“Then we can coalesce all these people that want to really solve the problem around a game plan. And so, I think if we have a game plan, I think this will move along fairly quickly,” Sullivan says.

Sullivan adds that the pathway must include ways to move the long-term unemployed into skilled jobs, not just young people.

Gov. Walker has convened workgroups of business leaders, educators and lawmakers to generate a statewide focus and then identify the missing or weak pieces. Afterward, he must decide how to fund the strategy in the state’s next two-year budget.