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Training dollars shrinking around state

Wisconsin heavily relies on federal money

The chairman of Gov. Scott Walker’s Council on Workforce Investment posed a simple question during its meeting Thursday in downtown Madison.

“How many of you,” Timothy Sullivan asked, “think we have adequate funding for job training in the state of Wisconsin?”

The room fell silent. Not one of the council’s 30-odd members raised their hands.

That silence reflects a difficult truth, Sullivan and others said. The state heavily relies on federal money to educate and train its work force, but those dollars are shrinking even as Wisconsin’s work force development system remains fragmented and its population of chronically unemployed adults swells.

According to U.S. Bureau of Labor estimates released Wednesday by the Department of Workforce Development, unemployment rates increased between May and June in all Wisconsin’s major cities and in most counties.

But even as Wisconsinites struggle to climb out of the recession, only 8 percent of the money the state spends on work force training comes from itself, said Rob Henken, president of the Public Policy Forum in Milwaukee.

The rest comes from federal sources, which are declining. An analysis by the Public Policy Forum found the state’s six largest work force development programs have lost more than $130 million in federal money since 2000.

Much of the federal aid for work force development comes from discretionary money, Sullivan said, which could be cut as lawmakers in Washington try to close the deficit.

In fiscal year 2012, the U.S. State Department gave Wisconsin almost $407 million for work force development, which Sullivan called “not even close to adequate to meeting our needs in this state.”

“This is a shower where we need a rainstorm,” he said. “We have it a little worse because we’re a large manufacturing base, but this is a national problem.”

Wisconsin ranks in the bottom first or second percentile in state dollars invested in work force training and lags behind about half of other states in implementing major work force development reforms, Sullivan said.

Meanwhile, the state and country continue to face a skills gap – a shortage of workers trained in certain areas, such as welding. Sullivan said that’s partly because most high schools focus on preparing students for college and those who don’t fit the mold are at risk of dropping out.

“We’re not talking about 20-somethings,” Sullivan added. “We’re talking about 40-somethings that do not have a high school diploma and have no job skills.”

Wisconsin’s fragmented worker training and education system presents another challenge, Henken said.

While the state has consolidated the system somewhat in the past four years, he said, federal work force development dollars still flow to 36 different work force development programs distributed through nine state departments, raising the question of whether and how the state should streamline its services.

The Workforce Development Council is expected to release a major report in mid-August that will recommend ways to improve work force development program. Sullivan said it planned to brief Walker on the report Aug. 9.

“We have to take action,” he said. “We can’t sit around for another three or four years and think about what to do. We have to move now.”

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