Public Policy Forum Blog

PPF Thoughts: workforce development

Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett recently announced the creation of the Mayor’s Office of Workforce Development. This new agency would shift state and federal job training dollars from Milwaukee County's Private Industry Council (check out the PIC's snazzy new website) to the city.

Is this a good idea? Should the city play host to a function that has long been the domain of the county?

Arguments for the shift of responsibility from county to city have been well documented in recent articles and editorials:

  • More visibility for workforce development issues by placing the program in the mayor’s office

  • More accountability by having one contact that reports directly to the mayor

  • More responsiveness because the city is southeastern Wisconsin’s largest source of labor and its center of employment

  • There is a great need for adult job training opportunities in the city to alleviate high unemployment and underemployment among minority populations.

Conversely, it’s argued that a regional workforce development authority would better reflect the reality that labor markets are regional (many of us live in one county but work in another) and that, accordingly, workforce development efforts should also be regional.

Who is right? Should our workforce development nerve center stay at the county level, shift to the city, or move to become part of a new regional alliance?

Efficiency may be as good a reason as any to house job training efforts at the city. As detailed in the Public Policy Forum’s “Growing Up” report released in November, the city currently spends upwards of $100 million per year to grow the region’s economy. This dwarfs the economic development capacity at the county. It also dwarfs the capacity of any existing regional economic development effort. Even the ambitious seven-county M7 initiative only has the capacity to spend around $2.4 million per year.

Therefore, the proposed transfer of workforce development to the city would, in essence, be governmental consolidation – a good thing when budgets are tight and property taxes are sky-high. With the city at the helm, the mayor would have a more comprehensive set of economic development tools with which to grow one of the most stagnant economies in the country.

Historically, only 1% of the city’s economic development expenditures in any given year have been devoted to increasing the skill level of our workforce. With highly skilled workers serving as the lynchpin to any 21st century economic development strategy, it’s high time that the city gets serious about tackling one of region’s most serious challenges.

The city and its partners also would be expected to continue and expand cooperative job training opportunities throughout Milwaukee County and the seven-county region. Included in this regional effort would be action to break down barriers that impede labor mobility in our region – transportation, race relation, affordable housing, and access to quality child-care.

In the end, who plays host to the region’s workforce development function may be a less important question than how effective the agency is at delivering talented workers to area businesses.