Workforce development: Wisconsin employers to become familiar with Walker cabinet

Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development Secretary Reggie Newson.

Reggie Newson didn’t say state government is coming and will be there to help, but that was the gist of his comments about the Walker administration’s 2012 workforce development plans – recall election or no recall election.

The Governor’s cabinet secretaries don’t intend to wear out their welcome when they visit employers, but they do hope to identify the ingredients of that elusive secret sauce that will better align workforce training with employment outcomes.

Newson, secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development, said the next phase of his department’s approach to closing the so-called skills gap will involve numerous visits to places of employment, and even cold calls.

“We will spend a lot of time in 2012 meeting and talking with employers throughout the state,” he said, noting the “we” includes Lt. Governor Rebecca Kleefisch; Paul Jadin, CEO and secretary of the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp.; and various cabinet members.

Having held numerous roundtables in 2011, developed the first phase of a “Wisconsin Working” initiative, and seen record postings on its Job Center of Wisconsin website, the DWD now is attempting to modernize the Unemployment Insurance program to move people collecting “UI” into jobs that employers find hard to fill.

That’s not as simple as collecting relevant background data – skill sets, educational attainment, and background – from people who apply for unemployment insurance, and then making it available to employers. It’s about making the website more user-friendly for both employers posting open positions and job seekers posting their professional profiles.

The Job Center website carries 34,000 jobs postings. It now has a central location with thousands of job postings from other employment sites, relies more on social media in the form of Twitter and Facebook feeds, and presents strategic tips from experts on successfully landing a job. A special section on the trucking sector outlines career opportunities in that industry, including the entrepreneurial possibility of owning a truck.

“We need to understand employers’ core competencies, knowledge, skills, and ability needs. They are interested in hiring people and they are looking for people, but they want to make sure the people they get in front of them have been vetted and screened.” – DWD Secretary Reggie Newson

“It’s going to be a hub for collecting job-related information,” Newson said.

Newson noted the “skills gap” has a supply side (those seeking work) and a demand side (employers searching in vain for the skills they need), and the department is working with manufacturers and others to devise a way to fill open positions.

“We need to understand employers’ core competencies, knowledge, skills, and ability needs,” Newson said. “They are interested in hiring people and they are looking for people, but they want to make sure the people they get in front of them have been vetted and screened, so it’s a two-pronged approach on the supply and demand sides.”

For manufacturers, it’s a matter of getting out of a reactive mode in workforce development, a process that could take several years. Buckley Brinkman, executive director of the Wisconsin Manufacturing Extension Partnership, agreed that manufacturers are looking for workers who can step into their manufacturing positions.

Since there are variations in how individual manufacturers do things, that’s easier said than done. “The three that I most frequently hear are CNC [computer numerical control] operators, welders, and people with general production skills who know their way around a production floor,” he said. “One of the dilemmas is that once you get below 10,000 feet or so and get to the specifics of each one, everyone needs something just a little bit different. It’s just enough to throw the system off.”

Mary Ibister, president of GenMet, a metal fabricator located in Mequon, said part of the challenge is that even in a manufacturing state, manufacturing is not well understood in terms of the variety and complexity of career options. In addition, the educational system must do more to communicate to middle and high school students that they can make a good living in careers that don’t require a four-year degree.

“People tend not to gravitate toward manufacturing careers because they don’t know what kinds of skills are required, they don’t know much about it, and they have a hard time picturing themselves in those kinds of activities,” she said.

With Wisconsin Working and other efforts, Ibister thinks the state is off to a good start, but cautioned that the most successful workforce development programs are driven by the various industry sectors. “If the program starts talking about the business as the customer, it will do a much better job than if it thinks of the job-seeker as the customer,” she stated.

Is this any way to count jobs?

Due to the large swings in data points from the preliminary data to the revised data, the way state employment data are reported has been called into question. Newson said the DWD must follow processes established by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics; over time, he believes the public will put preliminary estimates in perspective and wait for revised figures to paint a more complete picture.

For example, the jobs numbers from October of 2011, when the BLS originally said Wisconsin lost 9,700 jobs, later were revised down to 2,400. “If we look at 2011, there were multiple times where revised numbers showed that our gains were underestimated and our losses were overestimated,” he stated. “We just want to make sure that when revised information comes out, that we are moving in the right direction.”

One national forecast pegs annual estimated job creation for 2012 at 2.1 million new jobs, and Newson said the Walker administration is optimistic about state job creation. He noted that a Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce survey reported that 44% of respondents plan to add staff in the next six months, and that 94% say Wisconsin is headed in the right direction.

While the state has lost jobs since mid-year 2011, a period when national hiring picked up, “A lot of indicators show we’re moving in the right direction,” Newson stated.

See related article.