2021 was a year like no other. While the COVID-19 pandemic and economic downturn caused widespread challenges, these events have opened the door to allow for positive changes and equitable solutions to workforce issues. Signs are pointing to a recovery in Milwaukee; wages are improving, job opportunities are growing, and Wisconsin hit its lowest-ever unemployment rate in November. While the numbers paint a picture of recovery, there are still millions out of work, and the pandemic did not impact everyone equally.
No one has come out of the pandemic unscathed, but data shows Wisconsin’s Black, Indigenous, and people of color have been disproportionately affected. The pandemic exacerbated long-standing inequities stemming from structural racism in employment, housing, education, and health care.
For Milwaukee to fully recover from the economic hit it took from the pandemic, and to become a stronger city moving forward, the Milwaukee community must come together to foster broader equitable and inclusive economic recovery and rebuilding.
Milwaukee’s workforce is facing dueling problems right now: workers are unable to find good-paying jobs that fit their skills and employers are struggling to hire skilled workers for in-demand and emerging jobs. This skills mismatch is causing a labor shortage, with large implications for our city as a whole.
An informal survey completed by former and current Employ Milwaukee clients found that a majority of respondents report the main factors keeping them from working are employment opportunities and lack of experience or education.
In a July 2021 survey of businesses throughout Wisconsin conducted by the State’s Department of Workforce Development, nearly half of those businesses indicated that “workers not possessing the required skill set levels” was one of their biggest barriers to growth. In addition, the same number of businesses stated that workers “missing soft skills” (e.g., punctuality, attitude, work ethic, etc.) was just as much a challenge.
Employ Milwaukee, in collaboration with our trusted and established partnerships with businesses, community- and faith-organizations, economic development agencies, educational institutions, and non- profits is uniquely positioned to drive solutions for the current challenges facing both employees and employers through a proven track record of success.
In the past three years, in partnership with the Milwaukee Area Technical College, Employ Milwaukee has successfully increased and diversified the region’s IT talent pipeline by training over 502 individuals through programming that includes digital badges, pre-apprenticeship certificates, college credits, and industry credentials. Our initiative, Fresh Coast Tech Up (formerly TechHire), is a 100% online accelerated IT training bootcamp connecting underrepresented populations to quality jobs with career advancement opportunities. Over 65% of trainees have been people of color and almost 40% are female.
Another workplace inequity that COVID-19 magnified is digital technology skills. Nearly 1 in 3 U.S. workers lack foundational digital skills, with minority and economically disadvantaged groups being disproportionally affected. To ensure workers aren’t being left behind, Employ Milwaukee, in partnership with Microsoft and EveryoneOn, has launched the first cohorts of our Digital Literacy Learning Lab to provide jobseekers with the digital skills needed to succeed.
The skills mismatch is fueled by a gap in workers being trained for the jobs that exist. Work-based learning, like apprenticeship programs, transitional jobs, or our Earn & Learn summer youth employment program, allow for workers to be properly trained in the jobs that local employers have openings for. Work-based learning also allows for jobseekers to be paid as they train or study; a crucial part of maintaining financial stability while employees seek out well paying, in demand careers. Employ Milwaukee’s new Skillful Transitions and Lead Abatement Training programs will provide paid training and work opportunities for almost 1,000 job seekers over the next two years to help individuals “make life work” while transitioning into new sectors and higher skill jobs with advancement opportunities.
Employ Milwaukee’s investment in the long-term success of Milwaukee’s workforce through equitable skills training, work-based programs, and collaborative efforts is critical to solving this skills mismatch and getting the people of Milwaukee into well-paying, in demand jobs.
Employers will need to shift, too. To survive this labor shortage, employers must adapt their hiring efforts and be receptive to hiring from non-traditional labor pools. Employ Milwaukee offers services for local employers to positively partner with diverse labor pools. We have long assisted employers with upskilling their current workforce and are excited to be releasing a Trauma-Informed Care training to educate companies on being more empathetic, inclusive workplaces.
Of course, the work we do at Employ Milwaukee cannot and is not done by us alone. The American Rescue Plan Act has dispersed funding across our city to rebuild stronger from this pandemic. The City of Milwaukee and State of Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development have prioritized and resourced these innovative training models to grow and support our workers and employers.
The difficulties of the past two years have been a catalyst for restructuring and rethinking service delivery strategies that have long needed revamping. We have the resources, now One Milwaukee must come together to create the best outcomes for our diverse community. I hope you will step beside me as we walk towards a stronger, more equitable, and prosperous Milwaukee.
Employ Milwaukee is the local workforce development board serving Milwaukee County. By convening leaders from business and industry, economic and workforce development, education and training as well as community partners and policy makers, our vision is to develop workforce solutions that promote regional economic growth and employment opportunity for all job seekers.