Finding unemployment solution will take community-wide effort, panel says

To find a sustainable solution to the decades-old issue of high unemployment in inner-city Milwaukee, it will take a community-wide effort to place people on a career track.

“You want to do more than just place someone in job; you want to place them on a track, or a career, so they can advance,” said Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele at a recent luncheon at UW-Milwaukee.

Thursday’s event focused on UpLift Milwaukee, a workforce initiative which connects employers to possible employees, and provides training to those workers for certain jobs.

This program has supported around 200 jobs, with an average starting wage of $15 per hour. And so far, it has a 100 percent retention rate.

“I mean, it’s all well and good to get a temp job, but the ones that matter are the ones that last,” Abele said.

The Milwaukee Bucks were one of the first partners that came aboard with the UpLift program, and team Senior Vice President Alex Lasry says “it was kind of a no-brainer to be a part of.”

Eve Hall, president of the Milwaukee Urban League, says other employers must rise to the standard set by certain champions, making “bold commitments to diversity and employment.”

“There is definitely room for more of our employers to do that,” Hall said. “And once again, I think what we look at is, if we have five over here that are saying ‘We get it, and we are bold about it,’ that’s incumbent upon us to work with those business leaders, and help them to gather the next five.”

She says the Bucks were “very proactive, and continue to be,” as they hire diverse workers for the Bucks arena construction.

“So, what this represents, in my eyes, is collaboration. I see a strong tie towards collaboration in this city,” she said. “We still have a ways to go, but if we understand that what happens for some of us, is a win for all of us — especially those that may not have the same opportunities that many of us in this room may have — it is a win, because we are interconnected.”

Hall says she is hopeful about the future, given the attention paid to other related issues by Abele. She pointed to his efforts with Housing First Milwaukee.

This program was started in 2015, and aimed to “end chronic homelessness” in three years with permanent housing. Abele says Milwaukee is 77 percent of the way there on that front, and even the numbers for general homelessness have dropped significantly since the program’s start.

Abele says the troubling statistics in certain parts of the Milwaukee area have been that way “for a long, long time.” For example, the city’s most disadvantaged zip code, 53206, has an unofficial unemployment rate of over 30 percent.

And though Abele sees efforts on the part of a variety nonprofit programs, he says stakeholders at all levels need to make a concerted effort to “move the needle” if the city is going to provide better opportunities for its workers.

“I think what it’s going to take, though, is a lot more than just the county, or the city, or the state. I think it’s got to be more than just nonprofits; I think it’s got to be more than just the faith community and the business community,” he said. “This is an all-of-us issue, it’s got to be an all-of-us solution.”

The Bucks’ Lasry outlined the team’s commitment, centered around the building of a new arena and related development.

“So what the Bucks are trying to do with employment is kind of twofold; on the first part, it’s this 10-year time horizon in construction,” Lasry said.

During that time, the Bucks will be hiring laborers to work on the arena construction, with a peak in activity coming in the next few months. There will be between 600 and 700 people working on the arena at one time this summer, Lasry said, pointing out that these jobs pay a family-supporting wage.

So too with the secondary part of the Bucks employment efforts, which include “more permanent jobs,” like concessionaires, plumbers, maintenance staff, and security guards, for when the arena is up and running.

“So we’re putting up $375,000 that the city is matching for workforce development training. And we’re the first development partner with the city to put up our own money, which we found to be kind of instrumental in trying to move the needle, and in trying to, I think, do new programs that might be able to elevate and bring more people into the workforce,” Lasry said.

He says these efforts represent the “next big opportunity” for many Milwaukee workers, especially in the construction industry.

“There’s a lot of focus on getting people their first job,” he said. “We need to make sure we’re keeping a focus on that second and third job.”

Watch a video of the panel discussion here:

–By Alex Moe