State lawmakers who want to expand training for displaced workers are running into critics arguing that new jobs are the only true solution for the construction industry.
“Saying you’re creating more training is a political answer,” said state Rep. Robin Vos, R-Racine. “It’s designed to look like you’re doing something, then not worrying about it. Our job should be to help the private sector create high-paying jobs, but there’s a difference between rhetoric and reality.”
State Rep. Cory Mason, D-Racine, disagrees and on Tuesday introduced a bill that would extend work force training if Congress passes the American Graduation Initiative, a program designed to spread federal money to technical colleges providing such training.
The federal bill passed the U.S. House of Representatives and awaits a Senate vote. Mason said if the bill passes, Wisconsin could be eligible for $135 million in federal matching money, which could help create or reclaim 40,000 jobs.
“It’s a supply-and-demand problem,” he said. “It’s not that there aren’t any jobs available; it’s just that employers increasingly need skilled workers for the jobs they have on offer.”
State lawmakers during this session have focused on trying to recover and create jobs. And the efforts, from extending unemployment benefits to expanding state and federal tax credits for struggling or developing businesses, have helped, said Thomas Fisher, president and business manager of the De Forest-based Wisconsin Laborers’ District Council. So too has federal stimulus money.
“I’d hate to think where we’d be without it,” Fisher said.
The problem, he said, is state help only goes so far. The council has more than 1,000 unemployed workers, many of whom are going through another round of job training to prepare for whatever work becomes available.
Fisher said some of that work must come from the private sector, but businesses are hesitant to invest in major new projects.
Vos said bills such as Mason’s will not help. To get the state money to obtain the matching federal money, the bill will include a 1 percent income tax increase for people in Wisconsin earning more than $1 million a year.
Vos said that punishes small-business owners and further deters new companies from springing up in Wisconsin.
Kevin Hickman, director of business development for Janesville-based construction company J.P. Cullen & Sons Inc., said training is important, but more companies are concerned about finding the work to employ people.
“It’s a chicken-egg thing,” he said. “There’s never an overabundance of truly great people, but not only do you have to get the work to be able to hire those people, you need to keep getting the work to keep them around.”
But Wisconsin’s leaders cannot afford to sit idly by and wait for the private sector to bounce back, Mason said.
“We’ve got a lot of skilled workers that are displaced right now, and we need to find ways to address the problems of supply and demand,” he said. “I wouldn’t say other bills dealing with unemployment this session were unfocused, it’s just the scope of this crisis is so daunting.
“But if there are new opportunities coming through, we need to take advantage of them.”