Public Policy Forum Blog

Progress and challenges for workforce development efforts in Milwaukee

In a new report examining Milwaukee’s workforce development system, the Public Policy Forum cites a higher level of coordination and cohesion among key workforce development players since the establishment of the Milwaukee Area Workforce Investment Board (MAWIB) in 2007, but suggests a need for better coordination between the city’s economic development priorities and the needs of its unemployed.

The report – "Pathways to Employment"– analyzes the resources, programming, and priorities of MAWIB and the Milwaukee Area Technical College (MATC), widely considered the two most prominent workforce development entities in Milwaukee, and also summarizes the activities and spending of other key workforce agencies. In addition, the report explores promising efforts to coordinate workforce development activities in Milwaukee’s health care, manufacturing, and food and beverage sectors. 

On the whole, we find that sector-specific workforce strategies show considerable promise for the economy at large, but that many of the individuals being served by MAWIB may not have the education or skill levels to meet the requirements of area employers in sectors being targeted by economic development leaders – like advanced manufacturing, financial services, and water – or to benefit from related technical diploma programs at MATC or WCTC. As Milwaukee identifies economic development goals, therefore, it is important to determine the extent to which those goals should influence workforce development policies and programs. 

That is not to suggest the individuals MAWIB serves cannot advance beyond low-skill, entry-level positions through additional work experience and/or education, nor that the sectors targeted by regional economic development efforts should change. It does suggest, however, that MAWIB‘s role as the entity serving those with the greatest barriers to employment demands a commitment to a broad array of services and strategies that respond both to the needs of key industry sectors and the needs of its clientele.
Other key findings from the report include the following:

  • MAWIB has made substantial progress in addressing several longstanding concerns that had surrounded its predecessor (the Private Industry Council), including improved coordination of local workforce development services and greater involvement of major area employers. Interviews with key stakeholders, however, indicate there is more progress to be made. 
  • MATC’s technical diploma program offerings seem generally attuned to the demands of the Milwaukee area job market, as estimated by the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development. In tandem with those offered at Waukesha County Technical College (WCTC), most MATC technical diploma programs seem to be appropriately scaled in relation to job projection numbers, though in many cases retention appears to be a problem. 
  • The Milwaukee W-2 agencies’ designation as the one-stop job centers for Milwaukee County, and the sheer size of their funding base, make those organizations major players in Milwaukee’s workforce development system. Consequently, the education and skills levels of W-2 participants logically should play a prominent role in determining the city’s workforce development priorities and strategies. 
  • Employment and training services in Milwaukee are largely supported by federal funding sources, which have been declining for many years. Consequently, local workforce development organizations must continue to pursue new revenue sources and improve efficiency in order to maintain existing service levels. The recent creation of the Milwaukee Area Workforce Funding Alliance to better leverage the funding contributions of local philanthropists and to pursue additional funding from national foundations has represented a positive start toward that effort. 

The report concludes by asking whether the region’s economic development vision – and the demands of specific area employers – should drive MAWIB funding priorities, MATC program offerings and Milwaukee’s overall workforce development strategies, or whether the education and skill levels of the local workforce should be the major factor in the development of both regional economic development planning and workforce development priorities.

The goal, it suggests, should be to strike a proper balance between the two.

Joe Peterangelo