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Wisconsin lawmakers look to close state's job-skills gap with multi-pronged workforce-training measure

by Laura Tomaka ~ April 2013 ~ Stateline Midwest »
Even as many indicators signal that state economies are on the rebound, one important and persistent labor market trend continues — the skills gap between the needs of employers and the qualifications of job seekers.
Wisconsin lawmakers believe a measure passed earlier this year will help close that gap in their state.
“[It] will provide Wisconsin’s workforce, both employees and employers, with access to job training resources which will prepare workers not only for jobs today, but for the jobs of tomorrow,” says Republican Rep. Kathy Bernier, who sponsored the bill.
Known as Wisconsin Fast Forward, AB 14 includes the following provisions:
• The allocation of $15 million in worker-training grants over the biennium to train new and incumbent workers. The matching grants will be awarded to both public and private organizations, such as technical colleges, regional workforce investment boards and economic development organizations, and businesses.
• The creation of the Office of Skills Development, which will administer the grants. The office will work with the state’s Economic Development Corporation, the Technical College System, economic development agencies and businesses to ensure that the grant money targets emerging skills needs in the state’s workforce.
• The development of a Labor Market Information System that will track job openings and link unemployed workers to openings they are qualified to fill or to training they can complete to become qualified.
“We will now better be able to coordinate employee and employer needs in getting folks the proper training to compete for good, high-paying jobs that already exist in our state,” Bernier says.
Her bill received overwhelming bipartisan legislative approval.
As in many other Midwestern states, Wisconsin continues to have a relatively high unemployment rate (currently about 7 percent), but at the same time, businesses report being unable to fill positions due to a lack of skilled workers.
Bernier says the new investment in training will prove to be a “win-win for employers and employees and taxpayers,” and cites the new information system as one reason why. By more quickly linking unemployed workers to training or in-demand jobs, she says, the state will save money, businesses can grow, and individuals will have more work and economic security.
“I’ve heard it estimated that reducing the amount of time it takes for the unemployed to find employment by one week could save the Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund $45 million,” she says.
“[It] will also help to ensure our state’s employers are equipped with the best personnel to do the job. We expect AB 14 will pay dividends when manufacturers and other businesses look to locate or relocate.”
The skills gap is not isolated to a single state or sector. As New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman recently wrote, when unemployment was at nearly 8 percent, three million job openings existed nationwide.
“Every decent-paying job today takes more skill and more education, but too many Americans aren’t ready,” he wrote, noting that many jobs of the past have been wiped away by technological advances and globalization.
The technical skills needed in areas such as manufacturing have turned many jobs into ones requiring more advanced knowledge of science, technology and math. That means state workforces need to be retooled, and more bills like AB 14 are likely to be considered.


Article written by Laura Tomaka, staff liaison to the Midwestern Legislative Conference Economic Development Committee.