November 2009 Column
By Don Sykes, President/CEO of Milwaukee Area Workforce Investment Board www.milwaukeewib.org
Let’s start with what we already know: Like many other major cities, Milwaukee is dealing with one of the highest unemployment rates in years. Recent figures indicate the city’s unemployment rate is now at 12.4 percent.
By now, most of us have figured out that there is more to this problem than people who are just not applying themselves. A lot of us know that some of this problem can be attributed to a lack of employment opportunities.
However, there’s another part of the equation, what I consider the common denominator, which is the shortage of skilled workers. These are workers who not only lack industry recognized credentials that limit their access to job opportunities, but also the basic skills necessary to enter the job market.
See, we no longer live in a world where a strong back can get your foot in the door of a good company that provides family sustaining wages. Workforce studies show that today’s job seekers need to have at least a high school diploma for most occupations to secure a minimum wage job.
So, let’s do the math.
We have one part unemployment and one part too few jobs. Now, add to that a pool of applicants who have significant barriers such as physical or mental disabilities, past felony convictions, child care issues, little work history or limited education, just to name a few.
The Milwaukee Area Workforce Investment Board (MAWIB) knows that part of the solution is Transitional jobs. Transitional jobs provide subsidized employment for three to twelve months where participants earn a paycheck, learn technical skills for higher wage jobs, become eligible for the Earned Income Tax Credit, and receive intensive mentoring and support.
Transitional jobs target individuals with significant barriers to employment for whom less intensive job readiness programs are insuf- ficient. Individuals that will be served include: long-term unemployed, former offenders, substance abusers and homeless individuals. The design is structured around “best practices” from other communities that have already tested similar programs. Most importantly, transitional jobs allow participants to perform productive work.
For some readers this concept may seem like a new approach, but it isn’t. It is an approach used before by government to reinvigorate society, cultivate communities and stimulate the economy.
In the late 1920’s Milwaukee was hit hard by the Depression, and like today, many people were unemployed. Since that time, the government has created thousands of jobs for citizens who could not find work in the private sector. The jobs created were responsible for the establishment of national parks, the railroad system, roads and interstates. Nearly 40,000 jobs were created from 1933 to 1936 in Milwaukee alone, according to the Employment & Training Institute-Jobs for Workers on Relief in Milwaukee County, 1930-1994.
The MAWIB is currently working to coordinate an initiative that will combine construction jobs with a Transitional Jobs program called Milwaukee Builds. Milwaukee Builds would provide training, support and case management services that leverage community resources in a coordinated fashion to yield stronger results with the goal to prepare youth and adults for careers and employment in the construction industry. Milwaukee Builds would use a career pathway model to support workers’ transitions from education into and through the workforce that provides transferable skills in carpentry and certified skills including Lead and Asbestos Abatement credentials.
The MAWIB and its Milwaukee Builds partners include the Housing Authority of the City of Milwaukee (HACM), City of Milwaukee’s Community Development Grants Association (CDGA) and is comprised of Esperanza Unida (EU), the Milwaukee Christian Center (MCC), Milwaukee Community Service Corps (MCSC), and Northcott Neighborhood House (NNH) with educational support provided by the Milwaukee Area Technical College (MATC) and labor support from the Wisconsin Regional Training Program/BIG STEP (WRTP/ BIGSTEP) are envisioning the creation of a labor ready workforce equipped with the tools needed to carry them from minimum wage positions to professional wages in a career. Each partner in this process is committed to building on the strengths of one another while remaining engaged and focused on the growth and success of this program and its participants.
The ultimate goal is to later expand the Milwaukee Builds program to include credentials in other areas such as energy, water treatment and purification, urban forestry and sustainability with an emphasis in construction, water, energy creation and conservation. All of these fields have been identified as areas where the concentration of many future employment opportunities will exist.
This transitional jobs approach is not only an employment opportunity for every worker; it is a proven method of acquiring talent for employers, which translates to a win-win for the community as a whole.
So, what is the sum of this equation?
Putting our strengths together through collaborations to improve the skill sets of our workforce can transform individuals, businesses, and communities, which will equal long- term economic growth.