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A Nation Engaged: Job-Seeking Milwaukeeans Clear On How To Create Opportunities for More Americans

Marti Mikkelson
Charles Copeland brushes up on his reading and math skills at the learning lab

People in Milwaukee who need jobs have strong opinions about what the U.S. could do to help everyone in their shoes. The topic is actually the one NPR and its member stations are posing to Americans this week: what can the country – and especially the next slate of elected leaders do, to improve economic opportunities for more Americans? As part of this edition of the series, “A Nation Engaged,” we stopped by the Hire Center on Milwaukee’s north side, and asked people looking for work.

Charles Copeland worked at the Cargill slaughterhouse in Milwaukee for 40 years. He was one of 600 people the plant employed in the Menomonee Valley.

“I started off there working on the line and worked my way up. I moved up from that to the sawing table and then to shipping,” Copeland says.

Copeland says it was nice having steady work. That is, until July of 2014, when the plant closed – giving very little notice beforehand.

“I guess they were going to ship the jobs overseas so they laid us off. We didn’t get any written notice or anything, and then all of a sudden they were closing,” Copeland says.

Copeland is 62 years old and has been looking for a job ever since Cargill shut its doors. Today, he’s visiting the learning lab at the Hire Center on 27th and North Avenue. Copeland says he’s been working with a tutor on his math and reading skills, because he thinks education is the key to opening the door to more economic opportunities.

“Put more people back to work and get them more educated so they’ll be ready for the outside world. A lot of kids are getting out of school now, so you have to have a good education because the competition is rough and you have to be at your top game,” Copeland says.

Copeland says he’s not looking for the rigors of full-time work anymore, just something to supplement his social security check. But another job seeker needs substantial employment and other necessities.

“Something where I can get some good benefits for me and my children, like 401K, 403B, insurance, medical, dental and vision.”

Deidre Perkins worked in building maintenance for Milwaukee Public Schools, but the district laid her off two years ago. She says she’s held several part time jobs since. Perkins lives in the Sherman Park neighborhood, where unrest broke out last month after a police officer fatally shot a man. She believes the violence was the result of the area long being void of good paying jobs.

“Everybody can’t get to Menomonee Falls and West Allis and West Bend, it’s hard. So, a lot more jobs need to come to the inner city,” Perkins says.

And, government needs to help spread the word that help is available, according to Latasha Duffy. She’s using the computer bank at the center to update her resume. Duffy says she took a few years off from the workforce so she could raise her children; now she’s trying to return.

“I think once it’s out there and more people see they can come in and freely get the help and the education and then the training they need, that’ll boost the economy greatly,” Duffy says.

Duffy finds the number of plants closing since she’s been absent from the workforce, alarming. Jerry Grover has watched jobs come and go. Like Charles Copeland, who had a steady job at Cargill, Grover was once gainfully employed at A.O. Smith in Milwaukee. He thinks one way the country can provide stability for more people is to bring back the manufacturers that have left.

“This is the problem we have, our jobs were taken out of here. I worked at A.O. Smith, A.O. Smith is gone. International Harvester is gone. Case, gone. We had all of that. This was the job center of the Midwest. Our Congress needs to work on that, you know?” Grover asks.

Marti was a reporter with WUWM from 1999 to 2021.