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A Wisconsin workforce development official says the obstacles include things like the lack of transportation and child care, not necessarily inadequate training and skills.
Unemployment isn’t solely the product of a lack of skills or training, Wisconsin’s state workforce development official says. Just as often, a willing worker doesn’t have any way to get to the job or can’t afford child care. Sometimes the problem revolves around health or mental health issues.
Secretary-designee Amy Pechacek calls these “systemic barriers” to employment that “are not directly tied to job skills or training, but are impacting folks on a holistic basis [and] are really preventing them from getting back into the workforce.”
To tackle those barriers, along with issues of affordable housing, a lack of broadband access and others, the state will invest $130 million of its American Rescue Plan Act allocation in three workforce development programs designed to address the conflicting problems of a worker shortage and the inability of Wisconsin businesses to fill vacancies.
Wisconsin is one of approximately 10 states that have earmarked $100 million or more of their federal ARPA funds to workforce development, according to a database compiled by the National Conference of State Legislatures.
With an unemployment rate of 3.9%, Wisconsin is inching toward its pre-pandemic jobless level of 3.2%. It ranks ninth among all states with the lowest unemployment rates, according to the latest figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Wisconsin will award $100 million in workforce innovation grants to organizations around the state that work together to solve problems exacerbated by the pandemic.
“We’re really looking at folks on a regional basis collaborating on whatever their regional issue is … that is preventing folks from fully engaging back in the workforce or preventing the employer from finding the right applicants,” Pechacek said.
She said projects must be “innovative, creative and … infuse [the money] immediately into that local economy.”
Pechacek added the awards will go to projects “targeting the most vulnerable [who were] impacted greatly by the pandemic,” including minorities, low-income residents, those with disabilities, veterans and former prisoners.
Pechacek said “the sky is the limit” as to the kinds of organizations that may apply for the grants. She said they may be nonprofits, public agencies, schools, industry partners, workforce boards and others that “come together to solve these systemic issues.”
Other Key Initiatives
In addition, the state will spend $20 million on a Worker Advancement Initiative, which will entice businesses to hire hard-to-employ residents—like those who lack skills or have recently gotten out of prison—by paying their salaries.
“Some folks are having a hard time getting back in,” Pechacek said. “They’re having a hard time finding employers willing to give them a chance. We pave their way with local employers because the government pays their salary. … Hopefully, they will be hired on permanently.”
The program’s final $10 million is for a Worker Connection Program, which will pair unemployed residents with career coaches to help them overcome barriers that prevent them from working, like a lack of transportation or child care. The program will fund about 40 coaches, according to the state’s website.
“If someone has proper skills and training but no child care, their coach will help them navigate the resources in that area,” Pechacek said. “They’re hard to navigate when you’re just trying day by day to get food on the tale.”
Coaches also will point unemployed clients toward training for jobs in high-demand industries like health care, manufacturing and hospitality.
Rachael Stephens, program director for workforce development and economic policy for the National Governors Association, noted that big-ticket workforce development programs in Wisconsin and elsewhere are leading governments to reach across the public, private and nonprofit sectors to identify local needs and priorities as they decide where to allocate assets.
“Governors have been really working with the experts in their regions and in their states on what they believe will have the most impact on their residents,” she said.