Public Policy Forum Blog

Maximizing the Impact of Milwaukee’s Residents Preference Program

Development activity in Milwaukee has reached a breakneck pace, with new project announcements taking place daily. But can this opportunity translate into a substantial number of job opportunities for low-income Milwaukee residents? Are the right policies and programs in place to make that happen, or are changes needed?

In Locally Sourced, a new report released today by the Public Policy Forum, we help to answer those questions by analyzing the design and recent outcomes of the City’s Residents Preference Program (RPP) and reviewing national best practices for “targeted hiring.” The RPP requires that at least 40% of the hours worked on public works projects and certain City-supported private development projects are completed by city residents who are unemployed, underemployed, or low-income.

Among the report’s positive findings is that for all public works contracts closed between 2010 and 2015 that included RPP requirements, RPP workers accounted for 48% of the 335,732 hours worked, exceeding the 40% requirement. The RPP has only applied to a handful of City-supported private development projects so far, but most of those projects are meeting their resident participation requirements as well.

We also find, however, that very few of the entry-level RPP workers employed on City-financed construction projects are building long-term careers in the construction industry. In fact, since 2010, less than 5% of the RPP workers active on those projects were engaged in apprenticeship programs, which are the traditional pathway toward a career in the construction trades.

Across the country, other targeted hiring programs like the RPP are utilizing strategies to increase apprenticeships that could be considered here. Those strategies include requiring contractors who wish to bid on City construction contracts to sponsor apprenticeship programs; requiring contractors to utilize apprentices for a certain percentage of their workforce; and requiring a certain percentage of apprentices to come from targeted populations, such as city residents or residents of high-poverty zip codes.

Another key research finding is that the demographic breakdown of active RPP workers includes roughly equal numbers of Whites, Blacks, and Latinos, which generally mirrors the city’s population as a whole. That shows that the program is not specifically targeting minority unemployment, which some community leaders believe is and should be a primary objective.

Our analysis also suggests that the effort to connect RPP workers to construction jobs would benefit from better integration between the RPP and Milwaukee's larger workforce development system. Even when local governments establish targeted hiring requirements or goals, contractors and union halls retain their central roles for hiring. Consequently, there should be an institutional structure – which we lack here in Milwaukee – to integrate the recruitment, screening, and referral of targeted workers into established hiring procedures, especially when those targeted are from underrepresented groups that historically have not had easy access or experience in construction work.

The report concludes with several policy recommendations, including the following:

•     Establish participation requirements or goals for more than one target population, such as by adding participation goals for minority groups or residents from distressed zip codes.

•     Expand the RPP to cover more projects. One way of doing that would be to reduce the threshold at which point the RPP is triggered for private development projects, which currently is set at $1 million in direct City assistance.

•     Strengthen the role of the RPP in expanding access to apprenticeships and long-term career opportunities in the construction trades.

•     Align the RPP more closely with the broader workforce development and placement system, perhaps by fully implementing a “first source” recruitment, screening, and referral process.

•     Establish a public-private stakeholder advisory committee to guide the RPP.

The boom in local development has generated considerable pride and excitement in our downtown and our region as a whole. With a few tweaks to the RPP, we can also maximize the potential to extend its reach to Milwaukee's neighborhoods.    

Joe Peterangelo