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Perez: New DWD head says training needs to sync with economic development

By Brian Clark
For WisBusiness.com

Manny Perez, the new head of DWD, says Wisconsin has failed to align its training programs with industry needs.

But he says that's about to change. Especially now that the economy seems to be turning the corner.

“It’s our mission to advance the Wisconsin economy toward a coordinated workforce development system that supports job creation and helps individuals to become self sufficient,” said Perez, a native of Venezuela and a former Manpower executive who's nearing completion of a doctorate in economics at UW-Madison.

“The fundamental problem that has occurred in Wisconsin is a strong lack of a strategic workforce development planning that is aligned with economic development.”

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To fix that, Perez said leaders of DWD and the Commerce Department are “advancing a formalized strategic planning process that starts… by identifying the core sector areas for each economic development region and each workforce development region.”

From there, he said economists will forecast short, medium and long-term labor demands for each region so that funding for training programs will mesh with the demands of industry.

“As a result, we’ll increase the likelihood of alignment between training and skill development in supporting hot growth industries,” he said.

Currently, he said, there are “disconnects” between high school, technical school and the university systems.

He said he wants individuals to be able to join the workforce at the entry level and then continue to study to improve skills, become more marketable and move up the career and wage ladder.

He wants to motivate workers to seek life-long learning because “because the shell life of skills in today’s world is very short.”

Currently, he said, the state has 700,000 adult workers who lack high school degrees. Another large group has degrees, but needs about a year of remedial studies in the technical schools system to be employable.

“So we need to go even further back into the high school system to really make sure that people graduate with the proper level of English and math that they need to be able to compete in the labor market,” he said.

He said DWD analysts are now researching skill shortages for 2011 and should have that information shortly.

“We are also identifying the resources that we may have available in order to meet those short-term needs,” he said. “We are in communication with the technical school system helping them to meet their short-term needs."

Perez, who co-owned the Milwaukee-based JNA Staffing company before selling it last year, said he believes Wisconsin’s economy is improving.

The unemployment rate in February was a seasonally adjusted 7.4 percent. That was the same rate as January, but 2 percent less than the same month last year.

“The numbers are demonstrating a higher demand for labor and as a result I can share with a lot of confidence that this year we are standing very strongly to increase employment.”

Perez said the most difficult unemployed workers to get back on the job are those whose skills have become rusty or obsolete. He said that’s why the DWD is making a push to motivate those who have been laid off from industries that have shut down to take advantage of training programs, aligning themselves with new career tracks and take control of their lives.

Perez said he recently visited Rock County, home to Janesville and Beloit, which were hit hard by the closing of the General Motors plant and many suppliers in 2009.

He said he hopes the state can attract new industry to the county because it has an abundance of workers who were trained in robotics.

“A lot of those skills are transferable,” he said.

He said QuadGraphics and Marinette Marine plan to add 1,000 jobs each in Wisconsin and he expects other Badger State companies to grow in 2011.

“So we are upbeat about the economic outlook, while admitting that there are threats,” he warned.

He said they include unknown effects of the Japanese earthquake, tsunami and ongoing nuclear crisis on that country and how it might hurt Wisconsin's economy.

“We sell about $1.5 billion (worth of products) to Japan (annually) and we really do not know how the tragedy in Japan will affect Wisconsin, if it affects it at all,” he said. “We are looking very closely at manufacturing orders from Japan to determine if we will be negatively affected.”

He said the other major concern is rising gasoline prices.

“They are not statistically related to increases in unemployment. However, they are more related to the overall state of the economy, so we are also watching what is the impact of increasing oil prices because that may trickle down and have a negative effect on Wisconsin.”

Perez said he could not predict when Wisconsin would gain back the jobs it has lost since 2007. But he noted that the state has gained back manufacturing positions this year.

“The trick again is to support the policies to accelerate our growth. We are going to be able to have better answers once we formalize the forecasts of the industry sectors that are going to be growing together with the labor forecasts. Then we will have some confidence to say 'OK, this is going to be the demand because we are going to be doing analysis for the next five years.'

“That is something that has not been done here, formally, at DWD.”

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