What should Wisconsin do to address its persistent racial employment gap?

From the pages of In Business magazine.

Welcome to "Political Posturing," featuring opposing views on current issues important to Wisconsin's business community. In this column, Wisconsin Business Alliance Executive Director Lori Compas and conservative columnist David Blaska offer their opinions from the left and the right, respectively.

We need strong tech schools, commitment to diversity.

This is probably the toughest question I’ve had to answer during my time writing this column, so I turned to two people who have dedicated their careers to helping others gain access to gratifying work and a better life: Michael Johnson, CEO of the Dane County Boys and Girls Club, and Jennifer Epps-Addison, the executive director of Wisconsin Jobs Now.

Johnson said that regional jobs commissions could help alleviate disparity. “We need CEOs who will step up and say, ‘We’re going to make a commitment to diversifying our workforce,’” he said. “And studies have shown that bringing in diverse viewpoints and diverse ideas ultimately increases the bottom line.”

Johnson also said employers should work with the Urban League, Operation Fresh Start, and other organizations to offer year-round paid internships to ensure that young people of color gain access to the professional connections and knowledge they need to gain full-time employment.

And Johnson said the state’s technical college system should be strengthened to ensure that students can pursue fulfilling work in the trades. “Every kid won’t go to college,” he said. “But every kid should prepare for a career.”

Epps-Addison also stressed the importance of education. She recommended restoring programs like the Wisconsin Covenant, which offered college scholarships to any Wisconsin high school student who maintained a B average and performed community service. “The path to a university education has been seriously eroded, if not completely cut off,” she said, explaining that traditional college loans are simply not an option for many families. “Wisconsin needs to restore scholarship funding.”

Epps-Addison said that even though Wisconsin’s unemployment figures are startling, they don’t even tell the whole story. “Sixty-four percent of working black families are living below the poverty line,” she said. “The work itself is not a pathway out of poverty.” Noting the racial wage gap is non-existent among union workers, she believes the most important thing the state can do is raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour.

Lori Compas is a small business owner and the executive director of the nonpartisan Wisconsin Business Alliance, wisconsinbusinessalliance.com.

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New program holds promise for young workers.

Woody Allen famously said that 80% of success is just showing up. Employers would add, “clean, sober, and on time.”

For the other ingredients, Wisconsin businesses are Fast Forwarding to an in-demand job-training program not yet two years old. Wisconsin employers created more jobs in Scott Walker’s four years as governor than in all eight years under Jim Doyle. Unemployment (at 4.8%) is well below the nation’s 5.5%. The plain fact is, Wisconsin employers are hungry for more workers — 75,000 jobs are posted on JobCenter Wisconsin’s website alone. But are there workers qualified to hold them?

“We have a real skills gap in Wisconsin. People don’t match the skills that are needed,” Jonathan Barry, deputy secretary of the Department of Workforce Development, told me.
That’s why Gov. Walker and the Legislature two years ago created a program to train new workers — not for the sake of training, but for real jobs awaiting qualified applicants. So far, Wisconsin Fast Forward has awarded 145 grants to provide in-demand worker training to nearly 13,800 workers at more than 300 businesses. Average cost per trainee is less than $3,000. It’s not open-ended; only expenses are paid and employers foot half the bill. The result: The company gets the workers it needs and the worker has a marketable skill.

The training program must be sponsored by business and there must be a job waiting at the end of the training or a pay increase for workers who improve their skills, often resulting in an industry-recognized credential. Fast Forward is training in everything from construction jobs at Madison’s J.H. Findorff & Son to lab technicians at Exact Sciences to HVAC manufacturers for Trane Corp. in La Crosse. Major retailers are paying Fast Forward graduates of an Urban League partner program upwards of $12 an hour.

Lack of literacy is still the major impediment in both language and math. That black unemployment is most acute in Milwaukee is not surprising, given that its public schools have been failing for generations. Fewer than two of every three students graduate in four years; the current graduation rate is 60.6% — down from 61.6% in 2012. That compares with an 88% graduation rate statewide (tied for second nationally). Education reform must remain a priority.

David Blaska is a Madison columnist and In Business blogger. Find his blog at ibmadison.com/blogger/bring-it.

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