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

Government's Role in Closing the Skills Gap

All this week, WUWM has been reporting on the skills gap – the challenge employers say they face in finding skilled workers. We’ve also visited programs that provide training. They range from teaching technical skills, down to basic job readiness habits. As our series, Project Milwaukee: Help Wanted concludes, WUWM’s Marti Mikkelson sought opinions on the role government should play in addressing skills shortages.

It’s been a familiar scene in Milwaukee since the recession hit: a job fair. Dozens of people are milling about a huge room at the Washington Park Senior Center on the city’s north side. Daniel Agnew says he was laid off from his warehouse job more than a year ago. Ever since, he’s been applying for positions. The 30-year-old is frustrated.

“I’ve got driver’s license, GED, no felon, everything. What more could you want, except for no college experience, that’s about it. I have a good work history,” Agnew says.

Agnew says he’s been dropping off resumes at factories, yet doubts most will hire him because he’d need training. Deborah Blanks admits the odds seem increasingly stacked against him. Blanks is executive director of the Social Development Commission, one sponsor of today’s job fair.

“When they’re looking for jobs, oftentimes what you hear now is the new technology, the more complex jobs and there is a growing inability for our community to figure out how to match individuals like the people we serve with the jobs,” Blanks says.

Blanks says the SDC uses public funding to prepare unemployed people for the workforce. Offerings include everything from helping recover a driver’s license to learning interviewing skills and working as a team member. The federal government provides the lion’s share of the half-million dollars the agency uses every year. So Blanks describes the federal government as a key player in closing the skills gap.

“They definitely can play the role of funder, set expectations and hold organizations accountable for solid outcomes,” Blanks says.

Blanks is pleased the SDC’s allotment will double next year, because the additional money will allow the agency to significantly expand services. Another group that channels federal dollars toward bridging the skills gap is the Milwaukee Area Workforce Investment Board. This past spring, it teamed up with Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett to form the Mayor’s Manufacturing Partnership. Barrett sees the city’s role as being a conduit between training programs and employers.

“They may need welders. They may need CNC operators. They’ll come to us and tell us how many they need. We’ll then use the resources that we have available and we’ll work with MATC or Waukesha County Technical College to train them for specific jobs,” Barrett says.

According to the mayor, the partnership has helped place nearly 200 people in jobs with a number of companies, including Harley Davidson and Milwaukee Gear.

One public entity called upon to play a major role in preparing people for jobs are school districts. Milwaukee Public Schools Superintendent Gregory Thornton says the public and private sectors have helped MPS create new technical programs.

For instance, the federal government provided a grant for an automotive lab at Pulaski High School, while Johnson Controls donated two electric cars. And, he says more than 30 MPS schools participate in a jointly funded engineering program, Project Lead the Way.

“We’re seeing those kids have higher graduation rates. We’re seeing those kids with higher attendance rates. We’re seeing those kids as better student citizens,” Thornton says.

Thornton estimates that 15,000 of the district’s 80,000 students are now involved in some kind of technical education. While more schools re-incorporate industrial arts after dropping them over the decades, Tim Sullivan says one state responsibility is to make sure school districts equip students with basic reading and math skills.

“We have asked the Department of Public Instruction to test for competency at year 11. That gives them one year to help remediate those students before we hand them a diploma,” Sullivan says.

Otherwise, Sullivan says the state must spend $70-million a year, teaching basic skills at the college level. The former CEO of Bucyrus International has been consulting state leaders on the skills gap, and he published a list of recommendations this year. He says another role the state could play in addressing talent shortages, is to upgrade its software that tracks job trends.

“It will tell us what jobs will be available in 2025, 2030, so when young adults are looking to map out their education, they can determine not only the jobs that will be available when they graduate, but how much they pay, and more importantly the education level they will need for those,” Sullivan says.

Sullivan hopes the Legislature will act on his recommendations early next year.

Marti was a reporter with WUWM from 1999 to 2021.