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Innovative Thinking:
Keys to Building a Successful Workforce

By Mark Kessenich

Posted 6/28/07

You don’t have to be Irish to appreciate or marvel at the dramatic growth of the economy of Ireland. As a world leader in attracting foreign investment and as the fastest growing economy in the European Union, many are curious as to how this happened. Recently, I had the opportunity to hear the Irish Minster of Labor respond to the question, “How much of this astounding economic growth can be attributed to workforce policy?” His rejoinder, “the entire growth of our economy is premised on the restructuring of our education, trades, and training system.” The entire room was surprised by his remarks.

Somehow in Wisconsin and the United States our public and private interests have lost their bearings in this critical discussion. The debate and current policy can be summed up, “find a job.” Well, if finding a job is our public policy then its no wonder you have a lot of frustrated job seekers and cynical employers. Not exactly the Irish model.

There are a number of forward thinking people in both the private and public sectors who understand that innovation, diversity (of people and product), cost controls, and partnerships are core principles of creating the conditions for successful jobs training programs. Let’s consider three public / private partnerships and the components that make them uniquely successful:

The Surgical Technologist Customized Skills Training program sponsored by the major local hospital systems (Aurora, Columbia/St.Marys, Frodtert, and Wheaton Health Care). These hospital systems recognized the need to address chronic position vacancies in nursing and allied health professions, including the field of Surgical Technology. These organizations also realized the need to diversify their workforce. In partnership with the local Workforce Investment Board, they discovered an internal capacity to identify current entry-level staff who would make great candidates for the Surgical Technologist field and then created an advanced training program designed to move these candidates into Surgical Technologist positions. By providing wage support to the trainees for nine-months and utilizing hospital staff for training, the hospitals have significantly reduced vacancy, increased diversity, and have developed a core of extremely dedicated, well-trained, and prepared staff for the future.

The Welding & CNC Certificate Programs sponsored by the local Workforce Investment Board, in partnership with Milwaukee Area Technical College and businesses throughout Milwaukee County represent a public / private response to on-going shortages in metal fabrication and Advance Manufacturing industries. Individuals are recruited and assessed to fill slots at the local Technical College for industry specific short-term occupational skills training. Employers provide guidance on curriculum, hiring qualifications, and job duties; the Technical College provides instruction and training, and the local Board provides funding and coordination. The result is an economy of scale to provide a clear pathway and skills development system for individuals who want to work and earn a good living in the manufacturing sector. For the employer, these systems provide a workforce that has the preparation and attitude required to be successful at their particular place of business.

In the construction sector, the Urban Trades Partnership Initiative On the Job Training Programs emerged as collaboration between the City of Milwaukee, the BIG STEP program and the local Workforce Investment Board along with private sector investment on major construction projects in the area. Partnerships with Gilbane Building Company, Manpower and the Forest County Potawatomi provide individuals with the opportunity to work in pre-apprenticeship on-site job training and earn training wages. During the training period individuals are exposed to a variety of trades and at the end of the training individuals are hired by contractors or moved into apprenticeship opportunities in the trades.

Considering these examples, let’s summarize the keys to creating the conditions for innovative and successful employment initiatives:

  1. The center of gravity for all workforce development is the employer. While the local Workforce Investment Board or other public agencies can initiate partnerships with employers, it business and their labor demands which drive the process from beginning to end.
  2. Individuals need to have economic support while in training. Very few individuals are in a position to drop-out of the workforce or relieve themselves of family related obligations in order to go back to school or enroll in occupational skills training programs. Providing individuals with a training wages or training stipend works.
  3. Employers, human resources, and supervisory staff are invaluable to the recruitment, screening, and selection process for the program. HR staff understands the tangible and intangibles for their organizations. They appreciate the skills and qualification requirements as well as the culture of their particular organization. Ultimately, they also play a major role in the hiring and maintenance of employment.
  4. Clear path from training to employment. Training curriculum and instruction should match demand - what’s learned should be applicable to employment. Further, as a training class approaches the end it should not be a mystery where individuals are going to be employed. The transition from training to employment should be seamless without a day lost. In a solid partnership, all parties understand what the goals and outcomes of the effort are. Ultimately, the goal is increased productivity not a diploma or a certificate.
  5. Flexibility from both public and private partners. Federal and state regulations provide enough of a challenge for even the most creative minds. In the end, participant data questions, curriculum development, hiring practices, cost sharing requirements, and reporting will require all partners to recognize flexibility and innovation as the best tools for solving problems. If the problem was easy it would have been solved already.
  6. Public and private partners have to leverage each others resources. Public funds are limited and private funds are limited - we all agree.

The conditions for creating public / private ventures and how they are catalyzed is a matter of will. In Milwaukee and our region there are a number of significant partnerships which have leveraged funding, expertise, and opportunity to advance solutions to these challenges. Not surprisingly, a pattern for success has emerged which generates hope for individuals and provides a clear direction for employers and government moving into the new economy.

Mark Kessenich is a Research and Planning Analyst with the Private Industry Council, the Milwaukee Workforce Investment Board.

Helen Bader Foundation University of Wisconsin Milwaukee Milwaukee Jobs