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TRAINING DAYS: Education programs plagued by lack of money, opportunity

By Sean Ryan
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Four hundred does not go into 20, no matter how optimistic the math.

That was the harsh reality for the 400 unemployed people who attended a series of Milwaukee Area Workforce Investment Board meetings in December and January to chase 20 landscaping jobs with the Milwaukee Department of Public Works. The jobs pay $12.76 an hour and train workers for more work in the industry.

“We just don’t have enough jobs,” said Rhandi Berth, associate director of Wisconsin Regional Training Partnership/BIG STEP, which works with the board to train people for construction employment. “And I don’t know whose job it is to get jobs.”

Common struggles

It’s a problem shared by all of the training programs that prepare unemployed Milwaukeeans to become builders. Tony Kearney, who teaches homebuilding to youths with troubled histories, has 42 people on his waiting list.

There is not enough public money for governments and nonprofit groups to hire and train people, said Kearney, project director for the Northcott Neighborhood House, a Milwaukee nonprofit organization. Even if people graduate from the program, there might not be any construction jobs waiting in the private sector.

“At the end of the day, if we do this for 18 months,” Kearney said, “are we going to be able to get people into that pipeline?”

Even though there are few openings and a roster of unemployed journeymen, builders eventually will need more people because Wisconsin’s skilled builders are aging, said Craig Jorgensen, president of Pewaukee-based VJS Construction Services Inc.

“The work will get here eventually,” Jorgensen said. “It’s just going to continue to take some time to do that.”

Meanwhile, training agencies need money to pay people as they are being trained, or they will abandon the idea, head back to the unemployment office or worse, Kearney said.

“In the short term, there has to be a way of sustaining that for people,” he said, “or else the crime rate is going to grow. People are not going to feel safe.”

The lack of money to pay trainees during transitional jobs is one of the biggest failures in today’s public training programs, said Don Sykes, CEO and president of the investment board. Milwaukee County gets about $15 million a year from the federal government to run job-training programs, he said. The average annual take in the 1970s was $40 million, he said.

Stimulus money received in 2009 is the only reason the city can only afford the $15,000 per-worker cost of training in the Milwaukee DPW landscaping program, Sykes said. The city also is using stimulus money to create Milwaukee Builds, which will let organizations such as Northcott Neighborhood House train people to build houses, he said.

“We have a lot less money to work with,” Sykes said, “for a lot more problems.”

Social responsibilities

Loretta Keger, a caseworker who helps Milwaukeeans with legal trouble find jobs, said there are many reasons — such as frustration over failure to land jobs, substance abuse or lack of education — why people pull out of the jobs programs.

She said she spends her days and evenings calling to follow up on the 51 people she’s charged with helping.

Keger, who works for the Wisconsin Community Services Inc. Employment and Training Program, encouraged two of her clients to attend the investment board meeting. Standing in the back of the room and watching as 100 people joined the chase for 20 jobs, she said nothing is perfect.

“I know there’s going to be another training,” she said, “and once you get more money, you are going to have another opportunity.”

Kearney, who will be a trainer in the Milwaukee Builds program, said there still is a stigma of crime or incompetence that hangs over the trainees after they graduate from their transitional jobs. The responsibility falls to trainers to work through the problems of short budgets and the threat of people dropping out, he said.

Without that, the numbers will never add up, Kearney said.

“If we don’t invest in our own community,” he said, “how can we expect to have the employer say, ‘I can risk my company on it?’”

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