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Building a Better Wisconsin Workforce


Gov. Walker rolls out coming legislative agenda to develop the state’s workforce

Story by Sean Fitzgerald, Publisher New North B2B

One of the greatest challenges facing Wisconsin’s economy in 2013 and for several years into the foreseeable future isn’t an inability of local businesses to grow because they can’t adequately compete for customers. The opportunities for growth readily exist in several manufacturing sectors critical to northeast Wisconsin’s economic success.

The issue – as we’re learning all too well during the past half-decade or so – is the difficulty in finding a qualified workforce ready and able to fill high-paying, skilled-trades positions as they become available. Such job vacancies number in the hundreds across northeast Wisconsin, and while many are created as a result of positive business growth, many open as long-experienced practitioners of technical trades retire and move out of the workforce altogether, taking decades of institutional knowledge along with them.

Various endeavors attempt to steer high school students and under-employed adults toward educational training programs geared toward filling these highly sought-after workforce needs.

In late September, Gov. Scott Walker rolled out his own workforce development priorities for the 2013-14 state legislative session that began last month. The proposal includes eight separate workforce development bills primarily targeting efforts to attract and incent high school students to consider apprenticeship opportunities and technical college education in heavily needed workforce skill sets, as well as funding job-training initiatives for workers with special needs.

“These bills build on the near $100 million workforce development investment in our (2013-15 biennial) budget,” Walker said, indicating the proposed legislative package will invest an additional $8.5 million in new state funds and secure an additional $14 million in new federal funds for vocational rehabilitation programs.

The various workforce development bills proposed by legislators and endorsed by the governor for the upcoming session are outlined below.

Investing in youth apprenticeship

This proposal would increase funding available to youth apprenticeship programs across the state by $500,000, improving upon the $1.8 million already included in the recent state budget and growing that commitment to $2.3 million annually so programs can meet demand.

Youth apprenticeship programs, such as the longstanding initiative through the Fond du Lac Area Association of Commerce, allow students to receive on the job training in fields as varied as engineering, graphic arts and health care services, among others. Many of the state’s youth apprenticeship programs enable students to receive technical college-level instruction at their local high school.

According to the governor’s office, nearly 1,900 apprentices were trained across Wisconsin during 2012 at 1,300 different employers. Various school-to-work apprenticeship training programs across the state indicate demand exists from students and employers alike, and they can train even more individuals with additional funding.

And the training they receive has proven successful. More than 80 percent of the apprenticeship program graduates received job offers with the employer who provided the training, according to data from the governor’s office.

Apprenticeship tuition reimbursement

Apprenticeship programs aren’t entirely funded by the state.

There is a financial commitment from the community, employers and the apprentice as well.

This proposed piece of legislation would provide funding to reimburse the student or employer for 25 percent of the apprenticeship tuition and fee cost up to $1,000 per apprentice. This proposal is aimed at encouraging more Wisconsin employers to participate in the program.

A surprise to many, Wisconsin’s Apprenticeship program is the oldest such program in the nation, dating back to 1911.

Apprentices increase their skills as well as grow their wages. On average, annual earnings of a person who completes an apprenticeship roughly equal those of a college graduate and nearly double those of a high school graduate.

Technical education incentive grants

Sen. Rick Gudex (R-Fond du Lac) co-authored this bill to develop an incentive program offering a $1,000 per pupil incentive payment to K-12 school districts establishing programs encouraging students to earn industry recognized certificates in high-need occupations before high school graduation.

Originally proposed by state Superintendent Tony Evers, the program would begin in the 2014-15 school year so that the list of high-need occupations can be determined by the state Department of Workforce Development and the Wisconsin Technical College System, and then allowing school districts time to develop and prepare such programs.

“One of the things we wanted to do collectively is have students come into the workforce with some exposure to these technical skills,” said Gudex, who spent 24 years in manufacturing before being elected to the state Senate in 2012.

“This is a need that I personally have lived, having come from a welding environment,” Gudex said, referencing the Moraine Park Technical College Welding Boot Camp program sponsored by Brenner Tank in Fond du Lac, where he most recently worked as a production manager.

Encouraging students to graduate high school with industry recognized credentials in high-need fields was a goal of both the Governor’s College and Workforce Readiness Council and the Be Bold 2 study released by Competitive Wisconsin in 2012.

Growing the number of students who graduate high school with industry recognized credentials helps fill the pipeline of new students enrolling in the state’s technical colleges, and allows students to enter their first year with several program requirements completed.

“Employers require specialized skills to match the intricacies of this economy,” said Susan May, president of Fox Valley Technical College. “By getting high school students and educators better aligned with the value of a technical education, the pathway to a great career is both clear and readily attainable.

“Almost every employer I talk with is worried about his or her future workforce and simply finding enough people with the necessary technical skills. This is because far too few high school students understand or pursue a post-secondary technical education that can lead to great career opportunities here in the region.”

Rehabilitation Services

This legislation would invest nearly $4 million of state funds in vocational rehabilitation services for persons with special needs. The proposal carries an expectation that the state investment would be matched with $14 million from the federal government during the next two years.

The Department of Workforce Development estimates nearly 3,000 more workers in the state would benefit from such rehabilitative services delivered as a result of the funding this legislation would support.

Technical excellence scholarship

The state’s existing Academic Excellence Program awards a tuition grant to the valedictorian from each public and private high school to attend any higher education institution in the state.

As these tuition grants extend to the highest performing students from their respective school, most attend a four-year college or university. In fact, during the recently completed 2012-13 academic year, only 16 of 726 high school valedictorians across the state used their award to attend a state technical school.

Not surprisingly, employer demands are changing. According to the state Department of Workforce Development, an estimated 70 percent of the jobs in Wisconsin’s workforce by 2020 will require some post-secondary technical skills, but will require less qualification than a four-year degree would provide.

This proposed legislation would fund new scholarships for students at the top of their class for technical education to use at Wisconsin’s 16 technical colleges. This proposed scholarship would mirror the existing Academic Excellence Program, but allow local school boards to design criteria for awarding the scholarship.

Sen. Gudex co-authored this bill as well, indicating it would create a scholarship of $2,250 each academic year, the same amount provided to students under the current valedictorian award program.

“It’s another thing we’re trying to do to get the best of the best,” Gudex told B2B. “I’m always going to do everything I can to get students ready for work in the business community.”

Scholarships from this program would first be awarded in the 2015-16 academic year, giving schools time to establish criteria for selecting scholarship winners.

Wisconsin Workers Win

The inaugural Wisconsin Workers Win pilot program expired this year, and this legislation would restore program funding for an additional two years.

The pilot program for Wisconsin Workers Win operated in the high-unemployment areas of southeastern and southwestern Wisconsin, being offered as an option to unemployment insurance claimants to train in a new occupation while continuing to receive unemployment.

During the first year of the pilot program, the state’s Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund was spared $80,000 as a result of the initiative, and 166 unemployed workers found more permanent employment with an average starting wage of $13.56 per hour, according to the governor’s office.

Licensing Reform

Sen. Frank Lasee (R-Ledgeview) co-authored this legislation which would allow prospective licensees to take their licensing exams at the Department of Safety and Professional Services prior to completing their training.

As it stands currently, some prospective licensees must wait months to take an exam keeping them from beginning work in their profession. Though the actual professional license wouldn’t be issued until training is completed, this legislation would allow new license holders to begin work immediately upon completion of their training, removing unnecessary waiting time after graduation so that newly trained workers can get into the workforce faster.

Transitional Jobs Program expansion

This last item of proposed legislation would create a Transitional Jobs Program to serve cities or counties with high unemployment and high child poverty rates through the state Department of Children and Families. This program would be operated with existing agency funds and would provide low-income adults with immediate income, work opportunities and the ability to gain additional job skills.

A three-year demonstration project for the Transitional Jobs Program ended this past June after helping 4,074 workers receive long-term career preparation and support to move to unsubsidized employment.

Initiatives already ordered

The two-year state budget approved by legislators this past June included more than $100 million in workforce development programs.

Those programs are either already being developed within their respective state department or are already available to equip workers with the skills they need to find jobs needed among northeast Wisconsin employers.

In addition, the Wisconsin Fast Forward initiative approved earlier in 2013 – separate from the state budget bill – invests $15 million in worker training grants awarded by the new state Office of Skills Development. The Fast Forward effort also includes the creation of a new Labor Market Information System, which will connect job seekers and the unemployed with employers in need of workers, as well as assist students in learning about emerging career opportunities.