Governor’s Words on Workforce Development Don’t Match his Deeds

By State Senator Julie Lassa

Governor Walker recently declared September to be Workforce Development Month in Wisconsin.  I agree that it’s a topic that deserves serious consideration.  Wisconsin is facing a workforce crisis that will only accelerate in the coming years unless we take decisive action.

A recent survey by Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce shows that employers are already having difficulty finding workers with the skills they need.  That includes not only specific job skills and technical know-how; “soft skills,” such as proficiency in math and reading and knowing how to understand instructions, take direction, and work effectively with others, are also in demand.

This situation is made worse by demographic trends.  As Wisconsin’s workforce continues to get older, more and more Baby Boomers are retiring and leaving the workforce, and because of slowing population growth, fewer new workers are entering it.  Experts predict that by about 2035, Wisconsin’s workforce will begin to shrink.  This will put severe limits on the ability of businesses to locate and expand here, which in turn will cause our entire economy to slow down.  We need to act now to head off this trend, and one way to do that is to make sure that we invest in having the most highly-skilled workforce we can.

Unfortunately, while the Governor often says the right things about workforce development, his actions promise to make Wisconsin’s workforce crisis even worse in the future.  His administration has been most notable for the historic cuts he’s made to our educational institutions at all levels, from K-12 education to the University of Wisconsin System and the Wisconsin Technical College System.  The few new investments he’s advanced in workforce development are drops in the bucket compared to the cuts he’s made to the very institutions we need to grow a highly-skilled workforce.

Even if these cuts could be restored today, terrible damage has already been done to our educational infrastructure. This past summer, public school districts throughout the state reported being unable to hire the teachers they need – including districts here in central and west central Wisconsin. Teachers are retiring at record rates and young people aren’t entering the field.

Many of the best faculty in our universities are also leaving, either to jobs in private industry or to teaching positions in other states that pay more competitive salaries.  Wisconsin’s world-class educational institutions were not built in a day – so who knows how long it will take to restore what the Governor’s cuts have damaged.

If we want to deal effectively with our workforce crisis, we have to have the kind of policy that builds our training infrastructure and helps people get the skills they need.  Along with attempting to undo the education cuts in the Republicans’ budget, an example of Democratic leadership on this issue is the Workforce Growth Act. This bill, which I introduced with Representative Steve Doyle (D-Onalaska), promotes increased investment in existing worker training and expands technical college training services to help businesses and industry meet their training needs.  In addition, the bill would grow Wisconsin’s workforce by increasing our support of dual-enrollment programs and enhancing services that help returning military veterans train for new careers.  It’s policies like these, and not empty rhetoric, that we need to have a strong workforce now and in the future.

Governor Walker is right to shine a spotlight on workforce development, but he needs to realize that his policies threaten to accelerate our workforce crisis. Democrats understand that if we are to meet our workforce challenges, we have to invest in our workforce development infrastructure and in our people. You can’t tear down our educational institutions today and expect more highly skilled employees to materialize tomorrow.