by Mikel Holt
Those who attended last Saturday’s Community Brainstorming session expecting to hear of a quick fix for Milwaukee’s unprecedented unemployment rate probably left St. Matthew’s CME Church disappointed.
What they did learn during the two-hour panel discussion was that there is a unique state initiative on the table that could make a dent in the problem, and there are over 34,000 unfilled jobs on the state’s employment website. Unfortunately, most Black unemployed are either unqualified, or have otherwise disqualified themselves.
Participants in the forum–that focused on Milwaukee’s new status as host of the third highest unemployment rate in the country–included Dorothy Walker, dean at MATC, Mayor Tom Barrett, Donald Sykes of the area Workforce Investment Board and Reggie Newson, recently appointed secretary of the state Workforce Development.
Somewhat surprisingly, most of the discussion focused on self imposed impediments to employment, particularly job seekers lacking social/life skills and drug usage. Most panelists lamented that latter paradigm as a major reason many employers reject young Black job seekers.
Several speakers also noted that transportation to jobs located in the suburbs continues to be a problem and the lack of training dollars has decreased over the past decade, despite unprecedented need.
Despite assumptions to the contrary, Walker said there are “jobs in manufacturing, but most of them are technology based.”
Many of those jobs are outside Milwaukee, and transportation continues to be a major impediment.
MATC provides training specifically geared toward preparing people for the new demands of a technological society, she said, although reductions in state and federal funding has hampered the institution’s ability to meet growing demand.
“Hopefully, the state and feds will step in,” she said. “There are many jobs in the trades and construction providing livable wages,” she continued, but emphasized many Black students continue to find roadblocks created by ‘gatekeepers.’”
Sykes echoed many of Walker’s concerns, noted that in the 1970s, “Milwaukee had $40 million for job development (training). Today we have $40 million for the entire state. We need resources.”
Sykes said jobs today are requiring new skills. Where manufacturing “use to employ thousands, now they employ hundreds.” Technology, from computers to robotics has reduced the need for workers.
Sykes also suggested that resources must be earmarked for early education. He said during a recent conversation with Milwaukee Public Schools Superintendent that he was astonished to learn of the number of homeless children, or those needing dental care or glasses. “They can’t read, but they are not dumb,” he declared. They simply need medical intervention.
Sykes said if he had the power he would mandate that all Americans have 100% health care—“not insurance, but access to health care.”
From those who enter the Workforce Development’s door seeking training, many are in need of remedial education, he said. “Many need lifestyle training; how to dress, how to talk and conduct interviews, what to wear.”
Sagging pants reflect a culture that is unacceptable in the workforce.
Mayor Barrett expressed alarm at the revelation that Milwaukee lost nearly 8,000 jobs last month, and that the city now ranks among the worse in employment.
Ironically, he noted, “six years ago I participated in a similar forum on the same subject here. I remember it was hot in here, not from the heat, but because people were frustrated.
“The focus has to be on how we create jobs; how can we better utilize (central city) land for economic development.”
Barrett noted the success of the Menomonee Valley, which a decade ago was earmarked by landfills and abandoned businesses. Today it is a model for small industry and redevelopment. The city’s focus must be on replicating that paradigm along the 30th Street Corridor.
The venture will be costly, he said and there must be a partnership (state, federal) to put that land back to better utilization.
Within that context, “the challenges of transportation and water are not rhetorical. Waukesha wants (Milwaukee) to sell them water. But does that mean that the new jobs will got out there if we do?”
Reggie Newson, recently appointed secretary of the state Department of Workforce Development and a lifelong Milwaukee resident, provided one of the more promising presentations of the day.
Newson spoke of his upbringing in Milwaukee, his community work and his prioritization of the plight of unemployed Milwaukeeans.
He also took the occasion to reveal what has been rumored for several months: that Workforce Development, the Department of Families and Children and WHEDA have been collaborating with several prominent community organizations to development a employment and economic development plan.
African Americans head WHEDA, Workforce Development and department of Children and Family Services.
Those state agencies are working with groups including the African American and Black chambers, the Urban League and MICAH to develop a plan that will be hopefully introduced by year’s end. Newson did not elaborate, but it has rumored WHEDA, under Wyman Winston, is shifting its emphasis from home building and construction to economic development. The Black chambers and the Urban League have formed a collaborative and may become conduits for business investment and jobs creation.
“It has long been my theory that as goes our community, so goes the city of Milwaukee, Milwaukee County and the state of Wisconsin,” Newson declared.
“This new initiative signals the first time the state has reached out and worked with minority business and its advocates to move us all forward.”
Newson then issued a clarion call for “community leaders, organizations, and churches to press for a communitywide call for action. “We must advocate at every level to address the needs of our community. We must be single minded–one purpose, one agenda, and one goal.”
In the interim, the Black community must become proactive in preparing its prospective workforce. That means addressing the problem of drug screenings, which Newson acknowledged is a major impediment to many job seekers. Acquiring the necessary skills, whether that be through MATC or workforce development must be seen as a stepping-stone for entry-level jobs, he said.
Wallace White moderated the forum.