Addressing the Skills Gap

 By Senator Devin LeMahieu

In April, Wisconsin’s unemployment rate fell to 4.4%, a mark that remains below the national level of 5.0%. There are also currently more than 90,000 jobs available on the state’s jobs website:  We have people that need jobs, and businesses that need employees, so what’s the hold up? Talking to local businesses, one common issue they’re facing is that many job seekers in the state lack the expertise to fill many of these positions. This disconnect is often referred to as the skills gap, and it is a nationwide challenge.

Over the past couple of years, local school administrators and businesses leaders have been working together to fix this problem. High school kids are being introduced to the world of manufacturing and other skilled trades at an earlier age. Examples of this include the new Red Raider Manufacturing Program within the Sheboygan Area School District and Plymouth High School’s new Food Science and Agriculture Center.

Additionally, the Youth Apprenticeship program has grown within Sheboygan and Manitowoc Counties in recent years. Recently, I attended the Youth Apprenticeship graduation ceremony at Lakeshore Technical College where 120 students graduated from the program. In Manitowoc, over 90 students took part in this year’s program.

In the 2015-17 state budget, the Legislature also approved $25 million in funding for the Wisconsin Fast Forward program. The Fast Forward program provides grants to support employer-led worker training initiatives.

These programs have been successful, but more can be done. Too many traditional 4-year college students drop-out and are unaware of other vocational training opportunities.  One solution to this problem is to connect individuals that have left college with available apprenticeships. However, due to federal privacy laws, universities cannot simply share a list of former students with apprenticeship programs seeking applicants. By allowing the Department of Workforce Development to partner with the UW System, we can help apprenticeship programs share valuable job training information with former students.

That is the goal behind the Second Chance Act. This legislation was introduced last session by retiring Senator Rick Gudex of Fond du Lac. Unfortunately, the bill was introduced too late in the process to become law. The bill would offer another way for the skilled trades, technical colleges, nursing schools, and others to recruit qualified applicants. I am currently researching the Second Chance Act with the goal of introducing it early next session.

We need to keep looking for ways to help young talented individuals connect with the many great businesses looking to hire them. Continued efforts like this will help reduce the skills gap.

Senator Devin LeMahieu (R-Oostburg) chairs the Senate Elections and Local Government Committee and serves the 9th Senate District, which includes portions of Calumet, Manitowoc, and Sheboygan Counties.