State Tackles Jobs Mismatch

More than 100,000 Wisconsinites are collecting unemployment insurance, yet a state website has about 30,000 job openings posted, which begs the question: aren't there some matches to be found? This skills mismatch, in part a function of long-term unemployment that gradually erodes worker skills, and ever-changing technology in the workplace that aids that erosion, has the Department of Workforce Development (DWD) scrambling for short- and long-term fixes, and local colleges – technical and executive education – crafting new ways to serve local employers and workers.

Getting a fix on the answer

Even in a period of high unemployment, Wisconsin employers are on the hunt for skilled workers who can operate advanced machine tools, understand robotics and automation, and manage projects, but they are hard to come by. Department of Workforce Development Secretary Scott Baumbach called the skills mismatch a significant hurdle. "When we came into office, one of the things we were most surprised by was there were 120,000 people on unemployment insurance, yet we have all these companies coming to us saying, 'I can't find welders, or I can't find truck drivers.'"

The DWD has short- and long-term ideas for addressing the mismatch. In the short run, the department is trying to fill those 30,000 job openings with people who have posted their resumes on the Job Center of Wisconsin website, and it is having some success. In May, the department worked on a jobs fair with Oshkosh Truck, emailing the company's jobs listings to people who had registered on the website. According to Baumbach, 22,000 people attended the job fair because of the email blast, 15% got interviews, and 10% received job offers.

The long-term goal is to achieve similar alignment for the 120,000 people collecting unemployment insurance, but the department still doesn't have enough information about them to connect them to jobs. Ultimately, the state wants to change the information it collects from people and ask them to post a resume on the Job Center website when they apply for unemployment benefits. Modernization could take two years to achieve, but getting computer databases "talking to each other more simply" should enable matchmaking.

The state also has formed a Council on Workforce Investment, which is made up of business leaders, to study how to avoid future mismatches. One of the objectives is better coordination between the technical colleges and agencies like the new Economic Development Corp. (formerly Commerce) and the DWD. The collaboration will impact the allocation of training dollars and the formation of college courses, and hopefully enable the state to shift training gears in a matter of months rather than years.

Pat Schram, executive director of the Workforce Development Board of South Central Wisconsin, said it's vital for the state to more quickly "re-engage" the unemployed. "We know the further away they get from employment, the harder it gets to be re-employed," she said.

Schram said workforce boards want to fast track training, as Madison College has done with its Center for Adult Learning. The center has focused new training on upgrading the skills of dislocated workers and allowing them the flexibility to take different skill "academies" when needed to find work or move up to a better job.

Terry Webb, vice president of learner services for Madison College, said employers are looking for people with multiple skills, and gaining them can make people even more marketable to employers. "For years, you could get a job if you knew how to do one thing like operate a CNC machine," he noted. "Now in the workforce, you are much better positioned if you know how to operate a CNC machine and you know something about welding.

"Those are the people who are really landing job positions and competing well in the workplace."

Even workers who have jobs are not taking any chances, as more return to school to stay on top of the ongoing technological march. "There is a need to constantly upgrade your skills," Webb stated. "We see people coming back here because they want to keep the job they have. That requires all of us to be more productive than we were in the past."

Executive decisions

For executive education, customization continues to be the path toward a more nimble response to business needs. Scott Campbell, dean of the school of graduate and professional studies at Edgewood College, said Edgewood is providing fewer general public offerings and more customized programs for the businesses it serves.

Some of the requests come from organizations with an aging executive team that wants a larger pool of potential successors to choose from. "Companies are really working on succession planning, which is closely related to leadership development," Campbell said. "They are looking to maximize the talent they have and align themselves with the more transparent competencies they are looking to develop."

James Johannes, associate dean for executive education at UW-Madison, said the university has made several adjustments since the onset of the recession, all related to new business conditions. For example, the UW has become more sensitive to the need for companies to control expenses, which has impacted its pricing. In addition, the university now tries to deliver more programming on-site at the client company, especially when it conducts programs around the state. It also has tailored some content to be more timely, and it has made curriculum revisions in areas like business analysis to better identify recessionary profit drivers.

"With all the people retiring," Johannes added, "we're training new leadership."

Sign up for the free IB Update – your weekly resource for local business news, analysis, voices, and the names you need to know. Click here.