WisBusiness: Stimulus package could boost Milwaukee’s workforce development efforts

By David A. Wise


The agency responsible for workforce development in Milwaukee could see its budget triple under the proposed federal stimulus, the agency’s leader said this week.

Milwaukee Area Workforce Investment Board President Donald Sykes told Milwaukee Democrats at their monthly meeting that the agency currently receives about $10 million to $14 million in federal money annually to carry out its mission of training workers and connecting them with jobs. That could jump to $20 million or $30 million under the federal stimulus plan, Sykes said.

“We can do a lot more with that kind of money,” Sykes said.

And more money is needed, Sykes said.

Sykes pointed to a host of problems facing the city. Unemployment in the city is at 7.7 percent, while the unemployment rate for African-American males has topped 51 percent. Many workplaces have eliminated training programs and are demanding workers already come with certain skills, such as basic shop skills, that are not being taught in some schools. About 4,000 people are released from prison into the community each year and have trouble finding employment. Many residents don’t have driver’s licenses or access to adequate transportation.

In addition to the traditional population it serves, increasing layoffs have put more demands on the organization, Sykes said.

“It’s not just the manufacturing jobs we were concerned about, it’s white-collar jobs too,” Sykes said. “It’s across the board, and it’s not over.”

Many of these workers are highly skilled and have good work histories, but now may require retraining to get a job, Sykes said.

“Now, instead of concentrating on the bottom rung of the ladder, which is what we’ve been trying to do, we have to help everybody,” Sykes said.

Sykes said that although $10 million may seem like a lot of money, Milwaukee used to get about $40 million in federal workforce funds in the 1970s, not adjusted for inflation. Now, Sykes said, the entire state gets just $38 million.

However, Sykes pegged the amount spent from all sources across various organizations on workforce development-related efforts in Milwaukee at between $70 million and $80 million.

Sykes said a major portion of his work has been trying to bring those sources together since he took the job a year-and-a-half ago following the city’s takeover of workforce development responsibility from the county.

“We’ve really put together a focus on how do we take all the various programs that have been operated in this community and try to create a seamless, integrated system,” Sykes said.

In addition to those efforts and working with displaced workers, Sykes said he has worked to expand the city’s youth summer jobs program from 500 participants to 1,500. About 500 of those youth, he said, are now going to participate in a year-round program.

The agency has shifted some of its focus, Sykes said, to helping at-risk youth in order to get them jobs and keep them out of trouble. The agency has also launched a pilot program that has so far placed 100 newly released prisoners into jobs.

Plans are also being considered, Sykes said, to put people to work to help maintain parks, take care of vacant lots and foreclosed homes, and tear down dilapidated, abandoned properties.

“None of this is new. None of this is revolutionary,” Sykes said. “This is what we did back in the ’30s when we had a similar crisis.”