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Federal money sparks industry training debate

Paul Snyder

The Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development will spend about $38 million in federal stimulus money to train displaced and new workers while waiting for more money to create jobs.

“It’s kind of a chicken-egg thing,” said Assembly Speaker Michael Sheridan, D-Janesville. “Do you put the money toward the jobs or toward training?

“I think it’s a justified amount, though, when you consider the unemployment rate in the state is at 9.4 percent, and Janesville alone is at 14.”

The state Legislature’s Joint Committee on Finance unanimously approved giving DWD the federal money for job training. State Rep. Mark Pocan, a Madison Democrat and committee co-chairman, called it the most important vote Thursday, considering what a significant investment it is in the state’s work force.

According to documents from the Legislative Fiscal Bureau, the money will be spread among different work-force training programs throughout the state for programs such as one for laid-off workers and another help provide academic and training resources to people between the ages of 14 and 21.

State Sen. Judy Robson, D-Beloit, voted for the financing but said the money and training might only add to the long line of people waiting for work.

“There are so many students and workers right now that have money and want to get into programs or jobs,” she said. “We’re working to build capacity because a lot of people need jobs.”

Yet DWD Secretary Roberta Gassman said stimulus money already is going to projects in transportation, green building and other types of construction, so it makes sense to spend some of the money training people for the work.

“Part of the strength of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act is that it can create jobs immediately,” she said. “But some individuals need training to get those jobs, and some of the unemployed workers out there need some help to sharpen their skill sets.”

But skilled laborers already are waiting for any kind of work, said Terry McGowan, business manager for the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 139.

“I don’t have a problem with putting money out there for training,” he said. “I intend to be part of it. But I’m not going to betray the people who pay my salary by bringing more people onto a lifeboat that’s already filling up and sink us all.”

Although about 300 members of the Operating Engineers found work in the last few months, McGowan said, there are still more than 1,600 waiting for jobs.

But Sheridan said the benefits of investing in training will appear when the economy recovers.

“We’re going to have even more highly skilled workers out there,” he said.

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