Editorial: Tech colleges uniquely positioned to address unemployment

May 12, 2014

From journaltimes.com: “Labor shortage looming” — We’ve advocated in this space for greater support from the Legislature for Wisconsin’s technical college system. Technical colleges are uniquely positioned to address the persistently high unemployment in the state’s urban areas, including Racine; they can address the shortage of qualified workers for manufacturing jobs, aka the skills gap. They also provide opportunity for people who want a job, or a better job, and know that a four-year college isn’t the right choice for them.

A May 5 report by the Gannett Wisconsin Media Investigative Team underlines this point: There is a looming labor shortage in the Badger State, meaning we need to get moving on increasing the number of young, skilled workers.

One of the biggest reasons is the retirement of the baby boomers, those born between 1945 and the mid-1960s. State demographers say the number of residents age 65 or older will more than double by 2040, rising from 14 percent of the state population to 24 percent.

In that time, the state’s population will increase 14 percent to about 6.5 million, but the working-age population (ages 20-64) will be essentially unchanged, dropping a quarter of a percent. This means that for every retiring worker, there is less than one young person entering the labor force. In other words, a labor shortage.

Job numbers have historically mirrored changes in the working-age population, so a stagnant pool of workers means Wisconsin is expected to see virtually no job growth through 2040, according to a report from the Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance.

“Employers really haven’t experienced labor shortages to the degree that we’re expecting,” said Jeff Sachse, an economist with the state Department of Workforce Development. “The labor force is essentially going to be flat, and basically what we’re going to see is an employer base that’s going to struggle to find a sufficient amount of workers to remain in operation, much less to expand.”

This is unlike the Great Recession and its aftermath, during which employers weren’t hiring at all, or saw far more applicants than job openings. What Sachse is describing is lengthy periods of Help Wanted signs in windows because employers have openings but not qualified applicants.

The jobs are going to be out there. But they’re also going to require people willing to help themselves to a better life, people like Tykia Norris.

As detailed in an April 27 Journal Times report, Norris, 33, wanted to do better for herself than the $9.50 an hour she was making as a certified nursing assistant.

“They say money brings problems, but not having any brings more,” said Norris, who has a 14-year-old son.

She entered a construction training program through Racine’s Human Capital Development Corp., which runs First Choice Pre-Apprenticeship. The nonprofit trains people for construction jobs such as preparing them to work on the Interstate 94 project.

About 122 of the program’s 475 graduates have reported getting jobs in construction. Norris is one of them, and she’s now making more than $25 an hour.

Tykia Norris learned that it takes a desire to do better, to help yourself — individual initiative, in other words — to address your personal skills gap. But the combination of the skills gap and Wisconsin’s looming labor shortage is about to become everybody’s problem. Let’s get to work on that.

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