New business group aims to close skills gap
JANESVILLE A new voice will be added this fall to the conversation about why Wisconsin has thousands of unfilled jobs and even more people who can't find work.
Competitive Wisconsin, a statewide business group formed in 1981, plans to release a report in September that will include a set of workforce development recommendations to close the skills gap.
Later this fall, the group will hold four economic summits around the state to highlight the issues and further refine recommendations.
Jim Wood, the group's strategic counsel, said early research indicates that the state has at least 34,000 jobs that employers say they can't fill for several reasons, most notably that candidates don't have the technical skills for jobs in a manufacturing sector that's far more advanced than it's ever been.
In the meantime, he said, more than 120,000 people are struggling to find work and collecting unemployment.
Competitive Wisconsin held a briefing Wednesday at Blackhawk Technical College in advance of the report's release and the upcoming summits.
The group's recommendations will be part of "Be Bold 2," which will be released two years after its "Be Bold: The Wisconsin Prosperity Strategy." The earlier study set the table for many statewide initiatives, including creation of the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp., Wood said.
Wood noted that Competitive Wisconsin is a new voice in the skills gap discussion. Several other groups have been talking about the issue for some time.
On Tuesday, the former head of Bucyrus International submitted a report on how to improve Wisconsin's workforce.
Tim Sullivan worked on the report after being selected by Gov. Scott Walker as a special consultant and head of business development within his administration.
Sullivan makes a number of recommendations, including calling for the UW System to develop a contract with students that guarantees a degree can be completed within four years. The report also calls for overhauling the state's tax structure to lower property and personal income taxes and recommends increasing collaboration among economic development organizations.
Mike Van Den Bosch, executive director of the Walworth County Economic Development Alliance, said employers in his county say they have more than 500 open positions as the manufacturing economy has transitioned from unskilled labor to skilled employees.
James Otterstein, Rock County's economic development director, said local employers are acutely aware of the skills gap issue. A recent survey of more than 100 companies found that workforce issues are one of the most significant challenges to growth.
He said local efforts are under way to change the stereotypes associated with manufacturing, that it's no longer the "dirty, dark and dangerous" industry sector it once was.
In addition, he said, the message needs to be conveyed to students as early as middle school that technical education is a viable pathway to success because more family-supporting jobs will require education from a technical school rather than a four-year university.
"This needs to be a partnership between businesses, educators, students and their parents," Otterstein said. "We've got to treat it much like a political campaign.
"This is all about awareness and the frequency and consistency of getting the message out there."
This story includes material from The Associated Press.