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Baumbach: High unemployment situation dictates fast transition at DWD

By Brian E. Clark

When Scott Baumbach officially took over the Department of Workforce Development in June, he was ready.

That’s because he’d been deputy secretary since January and interim head of the department since May, following the abrupt resignation of Manny Perez. An labor law specialist, he’d also argued cases before the DWD for more than a decade in private practice.

It’s a good thing Baumbach knows his way around the department, because he has his work cut out for him. The state’s unemployment rate rose to 7.9 percent in August, up from 7.8 percent in July. The national jobless rate remains higher, at 9.1 percent

The overall number of jobs in August declined by 2,300 from July in Wisconsin, including 800 lost in the private sector. The bright spot in the August report was a net gain in manufacturing, a sector that has added more than 16,000 jobs since December. And, as Baumbach notes, the state has gained 30,000 private sector jobs this year.

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Baumbach, who was a partner at Michael Best & Friedrich LLP law firm in Milwaukee from 2001-2010, spent his career working on employment relations, helping clients with workforce planning at the hiring and firing stages. He also counseled on litigation prevention strategies and risk management.

Baumbach, 38, said he spent much of his legal practice before the DWD dealing with equal rights, unemployment and workers’ compensation issues.

“So I had many years of involvement with the various divisions within workforce development,” he said. Prior to that, he served a one-year clerkship with former state Supreme Court Justice Diane Sykes, who's now on the federal bench.

Starting in January, Baumbach hired many of the department’s senior staff and directed what he called its “early agenda.”

“Serving as deputy was a lot like an apprenticeship program that taught me a lot about the department before I actually assumed the role of secretary, which was very beneficial,” he said.

Baumbach said he isn't sure why Perez left the Walker administration, only that Perez had indicated he’d be happier in the private sector.

The secretary said he believes the key to lowering unemployment in Wisconsin is connecting job seekers to jobs. In addition, the national economy has to improve.

He said the first thing he put up in his office on his office is a billboard that references "jobcenterofwisconsin.com," the website operated by the DWD that tracks available positions around the state.

“At this time, we have around 33,000 open positions,” he said. “So our goal right now is to connect job seekers to these available jobs. By doing this, we’ll put more Wisconsinites back to work.”

He said the website is also set up so job seekers can go online, create profiles and list the skill sets that they have.

“Then, when we see open jobs, we can email directly to those individuals the opportunities that we have,” he said. “We’ve done this for employers, most notably Oshkosh Truck.”

The vehicle manufacturing company asked DWD to find skilled welders, he said. So the department went through its database, found several thousand people who met that criteria and then emailed them to announce a job fair. Ultimately, a thousand showed up, and many were hired.

“That was a great success,” he said. “Our goal is to do the same thing with unemployment. Right now, we don’t know much about the individuals on unemployment unless they have already registered with the jobcenterofwisconsin.com .”

He said the department is looking at different ways to get people who apply for unemployment benefits to register on the site and provide the state data on their background so they can quickly be connected with openings.

Likewise, that information will help DWD determine if unemployed workers need new training, he said. Baumbach said there can be a skill mismatch that causes some positions to go unfilled.

“Companies like Oshkosh and Bucyrus are saying they can’t find skilled workers," he said. "That was a surprise to me.”

He said the DWD’s website should help, but that skills mismatches have “festered” as the recession lingered and workers have stopped looking or technology has moved on. Training programs, he said, could help bring workers back up to speed.

The economic downturn and resulting job losses has led to big payouts from the state's unemployment insurance fund. Baumbach said the state “got itself into a little bit a bind” in recent years by borrowing $1.4 billion from Washington.

“The federal government wants its money back, and we have an interest payment… due by the end of September,” he said.

To raise the money, the state issued an assessment of $45 million on employers, which came to about $27 per employee.

He said the state’s Unemployment Insurance Council, made up of labor and business representatives, is meeting to deal with the fund’s solvency issues.

“They are looking for ways to make the fund solvent again, should there be an (economic) downturn again,” he said.

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