Foiling the workforce paradox in Wisconsin

A small group of insightful individuals in Rock County is about to implement a radical and innovative program to recruit and train chronically unemployed people who have often been ignored or written off as hopeless cases. The program, called Work Today, will also seek to overcome the phenomenon that has come to be known as the “workforce paradox.”

The workforce paradox is seen in areas where unemployment is high yet companies have many jobs they are unable to fill. While not everyone agrees why this phenomenon occurs, often it is because potential workers have neither the personal attributes nor the basic job skills they need. This is certainly true for one segment of the population. For too long, well-meaning government programs designed as safety nets have so entangled some recipients that they have become trapped in never-ending cycles of dependency with little incentive to try to get out.

There are many reasons why some people remain unemployable. Often a lack of what are called “soft skills” is to blame. Many job seekers often have poor financial knowledge, problems balancing family and job responsibilities, poor dispute resolution skills, a lack of understanding of the employment system, and even poor English language proficiency or literacy. Other obstacles might be single-parent status, unavailability of reliable transportation, an absence of extended family support, or growing up in a family and/or peer group unfamiliar with or even hostile to a working lifestyle. Even more difficult cases might include unresolved alcohol or drug problems or criminal backgrounds. Until these individuals learn they are not victims as they have been led to believe but can become employed, are capable of supporting their families, and can take back their pride, the problems will persist.

After General Motors closed its Janesville assembly plant in 2008, the Rock County area was plagued by a cascading loss of supplier businesses and the resulting loss of jobs. Coupled with other problems, the county, and especially Beloit, were left with among the highest unemployment rates in the state, a situation that still exists today. Although conditions have improved, progress has been slow, and the Beloit area continues to be especially hard hit.

Over the past year and a half, community leaders in Rock County have met with each other and worked at developing an innovative approach that, if successful, could serve as a blueprint for similar programs in Milwaukee and other parts of the state. In doing so, they have worked closely with some of the county’s largest employers. State agencies such as the departments of Children and Families and Workforce Development and employers in the private sector have been following this program with interest. So far, funding has come primarily from participating employers, with the hope that other funding sources might emerge once the plan shows promise.

 

Rock County’s approach differs from previous training schemes, which have often met with mixed success. First and foremost, it will be employer-centered. Making the employer the primary client should lead to a far more effective effort to provide job seekers with the skills they need to find employment. Participating local employers will clearly communicate their requirements to program administrators, who will assess clients, determine the best methods of reaching out to them, and place them in appropriate programs.

Manpower, Inc. will conduct some of the evaluations, including providing immersion-style “soft skills” training, if needed, as well as actual basic skills training. While past programs have attempted to train clients first before trying to find openings for them, under this plan potential employees would be given specific training for job openings that already exist. The “soft skills” immersion is an essential part of making this program a success. Meeting companies’ specific skill requirements is the second critical element.

Gov. Walker has made job creation his major goal, and a major part of this effort is helping to solve our current skills gap. Companies are in critical need of qualified employees, and there are workers out there who are searching for jobs. This program can be an important step in continuing to improve the state’s employment picture.

Eloise Anderson is secretary of the State Department of Children and Families. For further information about the Work Today program, contact Randall Upton at the Greater Beloit Chamber of Commerce at 608-365-8835 or visit www.greaterbeloitchamber.org.

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