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Wednesday, Jan. 21, 2009

Mr. Jobs

Donald Sykes Discusses the City's efforts to Create Employment

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When Donald Sykes took over the Milwaukee Area Workforce Investment Board in 2007, he had decades of experience in training new workers. Sykes—a former head of the Social Development Commission and the New Hope Project, and a veteran of Washington policy-making—returned two years ago to a Milwaukee facing a stagnant economy and high levels of unemployment, especially in the central city.

Now, almost two years later, Sykes’ task seems even more difficult, given today’s economic climate: the worst job losses in the United States since 1945, including large layoffs in our area, and a shaky employment future.

Interestingly, Sykes is optimistic that Milwaukee’s workers will find good, steady jobs in the coming years and decades. After all, he noted, we’ve already lost so many manufacturing jobs that we have nowhere to go but up, and nothing left to do but find solutions. Sykes’ workforce development goals are also getting a boost by President Barack Obama’s plans to stimulate the economy by investing in job-rich projects.

Sykes visited the Shepherd offices for a wide-ranging conversation about the challenges facing Milwaukee’s employers and job seekers; why health care is imperative, especially for low-income and part-time workers; and how the proposed stimulus funds can be used wisely. You’ll find excerpts of that conversation here, but the full conversation is posted online at www.expressmilwaukee.com.

Universal Health Care Is Critical

Although the Milwaukee Area Workforce Investment Board is tasked with helping job seekers find employment, Sykes said that the best thing we can do for our workers has nothing to do with job training or placement.

“If somebody asked me the most important thing we could do for people seeking a job, low-income people facing huge barriers, my No. 1 priority would be health care. Not health insurance. Health care. With health care people can manage on some of these low-paying jobs or the two or three part-time jobs they carve together to make a living. Women don’t have to give up their jobs if their kids get sick because they can’t take off to take care of their kids.”

A Shrunken Budget

The Workforce Investment Board is funded in part by the U.S. Labor Department, but, as Sykes pointed out, the job-training funds in 2009 are a far cry from the funds it received in the 1970s.

“We may end up with $13-$15 million [annually for workforce development] in Milwaukee. … This is important. It used to be $40 million just for Milwaukee County in the 1970s. Now we’ve got $38 million [in current dollars] for the whole state.”

Coordinating Job Training Opportunities

Sykes said job training has three main funding streams: the Labor Department, which funds training for high-end jobs; Wisconsin Works, the former welfare program, which provides funds for custodial parents who must work to receive benefits; and food stamps funding, which typically goes to people with no job skills who want to develop them. These funding streams for job training programs are totally segregated. Sykes said he wants to pull them all together so that job seekers can easily find job training opportunities without encountering a lot of red tape.

“Our whole goal is to shift this thing around so we have an integrated system. In the long run we want to come up with at least three basic career centers where people can walk through the door and get services irrespective of their eligibility for any one thing.”

Milwaukee’s Aging Workforce

Sykes said that Milwaukee’s workers are getting ready to retire, but employers are only starting to recognize that they will need to hire a new generation of workers, many of whom are African American, Latino or Asian, to fill their ranks.

“Many of the businesses in our community have not done a lot of hiring in the past 20 years. They have a workforce that has been with them for some time. Those people are getting ready to retire. That’s putting pressure on the businesses, which all of a sudden are interested in the workforce and training people. Same thing for the unions. Their membership is getting ready to retire, too. They are now willing to look at diversity. But it’s not going all the way down. The leadership in many times understands the need to be more diverse, in labor and business. But it’s not filtering down to the HR [human resources] people. There is some resistance to these things.”

Entry-Level Jobs Are More Complex Now

Sykes pointed out that today’s job seekers must have some skills on their first day of work, while earlier generations of workers could be hired if they were willing to work hard and learn more skills while on the job.

“What you have right now is some HR people who have for 20 years been working with a set group of people, a group of people who, mind you, if they walked into one of today’s plants with the skill level they had initially, they would be having the same problems that the minorities are having today when we say they don’t have the skills.

But back then business was simpler, manufacturing was simpler. So back then you came in and if you had a strong back and basic intelligence you could do the jobs. They’ve been there 30 years and they’ve learned the more sophisticated skills on the job. The skill level for manufacturing now is up here [motions above his head] and back then it was down here [motions toward the floor]. These guys have it now. The HR people know how to work with them.

The HR people are now dealing with folks who were not in that group and they are not sensitive to that. They’re saying things like, ‘I’m not a social worker; these people need to come in here ready-made.’”

Milwaukee’s Struggling Labor Pool

Sykes said Milwaukee’s chronically unemployed workers can be placed in three groups. The first group is willing to and can work, but isn’t connected to jobs. These potential workers don’t know enough people who are employed who can recommend them for job openings at their workplaces. The second group of people needs some job training, plus help recovering their driver’s licenses or accessing work opportunities. The third group of potential workers has multiple, serious barriers that prevent them from finding work. Sykes made a good case for investing in their future.

“This is a significant group in the country and the city, and these people have multiple barriers. You have all of the things we just identified—plus they have tremendous psychic stress. Kids who live in many of these families can’t sleep at night for fear that someone is going to jump into bed with them or there are guns going off. We don’t acknowledge that stress that is being internalized in families.

We know that we are dealing with a huge problem of re-entry from prisons. Somewhere in the neighborhood of 4,000 a year are coming back to Milwaukee. Add to that the people who are already here who have felony convictions. I wanted to avoid the re-entry issue until I looked at its impact on our community. It’s phenomenal. It’s not just the 4,000 who are coming back every year. It’s their families. And then I started looking at the fact that it skews all of our data. A lot of our data about employment and unemployment excludes this population. So you put them back into the equation—I look at the number of felons who have been denied the opportunity to vote, and if they could vote in those communities, it would change the politics of this country.

Now put that up against the modern trend in workforce development, which is demand driven to meet the needs of business. So everybody wants us to train people for the jobs that exist. The idea of training people independent of jobs is now passe. That’s not going to work if you want to deal with the bottom third. You’ve got to devote resources to them to bring them up to a level where they can participate in workforce development.”

Milwaukee’s Business Community

Sykes said that the city has a number of outstanding, enlightened employers who are willing to mentor their workers who need extra support.

“Milwaukee’s business community is varied. When I look at the example set by Jeff Joerres and Manpower, I’m impressed. They moved their headquarters Downtown and they’re making investments in the city. We have other standouts. We have small businesses like Palermo’s Pizza who are employing large numbers of youths.

There are some small-business leaders who are really interested in working with the community. Kim Wall, who owns Ma Baensch, has been working very hard to help people who have just gotten out of prison. She gets involved.

The mayor is working with us on summer and youth employment programs. We have grown the youth program from 500 to 1,500 and for the first time we have 500 slots for year-round positions. We’re focusing on green technology and exposing kids to green technology. One of our prides and joys is a conservation program supported by Johnson Controls, We Energies and the Bader Foundation.”

Obama’s Plans Should Include the Hardest to Help

Sykes said that Obama’s proposed stimulus plan should include plentiful opportunities for job seekers who are the hardest to train and employ.

“With this new administration, we’re talking about this huge expenditure on infrastructure. If we do what we’ve done in the past, it will not benefit the low-income people in this city. Everyone’s talking about ladders and pipelines to help people to move up. We need to make sure that the first rung of the ladder is low enough that we can catch that middle group of people I told you about. That’s where we have these fairly healthy black males—not just black males, but poor people, Hispanic, Hmong, white. So we need to bring that ladder down to the point where we can do infrastructure jobs.

I want to use as an example what the [Department of Transportation] did with the Marquette Interchange. Instead of having these big contracts that minority-owned firms can’t compete for, we need to break these jobs up into smaller sizes so that smaller companies and minority-owned companies can participate. But we need to break up jobs, too, into two levels. So the first level may be a more labor-intensive position. Right now we have these jobs structured so that they’re the most efficient, which may require more sophisticated skills. We need to break the job up so that there are entry-level opportunities. We have people with good strong backs. If we’re doing road construction, they can move dirt, they can do manual labor. But we’ve set the bar so high that for them to be able to move dirt around, they’re required to do more sophisticated activities.”

What’s your take? Write: editor@shepex.com or comment on this story online at www.expressmilwaukee.com.


Full conversation with Don Sykes

Shepherd: What sort of work are you doing at the Milwaukee Area Workforce Investment Board? What’s your vision?

Sykes: I often like to look at the big picture. I’m a big-box person. I always like to start with what’s going to do the most for the most people and then break it down to the customization of what they need. I use the analogy that in Wisconsin, everyone needs a coat. So when people starting asking me what we can do, I say there are certain givens that we in this country just don’t want to use. One of them has nothing to do with workforce development—it’s universal health care. If somebody asked me the most important thing we could do for people seeking a job, low-income people facing huge barriers, my No. 1 priority would be health care. Not health insurance. Health care. With health care people can manage on some of these low-paying jobs or the two or three part-time jobs they carve together to make a living. Women don’t have to give up their jobs if their kids get sick because they can’t take off to take care of their kids. I want to start with that big-picture view of the workforce.

As far as the Workforce Investment Board, it was part of a silo system in this community. You know you go to a farm and you see those big silos? Think of them as funding streams. We’re trying to put a pipe in them so they blend into one location and try to meet the need of the individual and break down barriers.

The Workforce Investment Board is not the biggest funding source for workforce development but it’s probably the most known because it’s funded by the U.S. Labor Department. But the Labor Department does not give the WIB sufficient funds to actually coordinate and do the workforce development. They give us that responsibility, though, through the Workforce Investment Act [WIA]. 

Shepherd: How much money are we talking about?

Sykes: You’ve got about $12-$13 million that comes in because of WIA. That’s because the basic $10 million is supplemented. Every time we have a big plant closing, the feds issue additional resources. We may end up with $13-$15 million in Milwaukee. The state gets about $37 million to $38 million. 

Shepherd: That’s a huge decrease.

Sykes: This is important. It used to be $40 million just for Milwaukee County in the 1970s. Now we’ve got $38 million [in today’s dollars] for the whole state.

Shepherd: What have you learned about Milwaukee’s workforce development efforts?

Sykes: When I looked at the whole situation and the mayor asked me to come in to do this, I gave him six months of analysis and study. There are three core funding streams for workforce development, for basic training.

The Workforce Investment Act, that’s about $11 million a year. The Labor Department is pushing us to fund and train high-end jobs, which means that people have to have a certain skill level to begin with. Then there’s welfare, or what was welfare, the TANF [Temporary Assistance for Needy Families] money. That’s federal money that comes to the state and then the county. Except Tommy Thompson, instead of flowing it through the county, funded PIC [Private Industry Council], the YWCA, Maximus, with that money. That money is the largest money for workforce development but it’s restricted to custodial parents, mostly women.

The third is food stamps money, or Food Shares. Those people who are eligible for food stamps can get money to be trained. It was a mandatory program, that if you came to get food stamps you had to participate in training. We have since changed it and it’s not mandatory anymore. But it’s so crucial. It’s the only money available to this huge population of black males, unemployed, with no skills and multiple barriers, because the WIA [Workforce Investment Act] money is really focused on the high-end training and the TANF money is for custodial parents.

Those are the three major funding streams. My goal when I took over the WIB was to try to bring those things together into a seamless system so that you wouldn’t have to go to 12th and Vliet for TANF and PIC for this or somewhere else. I’ve pulled all of the providers together and we’ve been meeting for a year trying to put this together. The goal was to transform this system from an isolated thing, which the PIC was—it just kept its money to itself in its own sandbox—into a true planning and coordinating vehicle for Milwaukee County. That’s the goal.

Shepherd: So did the PIC function in a vacuum?

Sykes: They all functioned in a vacuum. [Former PIC head] Gerard Randall put his hands around his money and said, “If you don’t want to work with us, that’s fine. We’re going to make sure we have all of these tight rules.” Everybody had their own sandbox. Since he had the money, he played in it the way he wanted to. But they never tried to coordinate. And nobody wanted to coordinate with them.
 Our whole goal is to shift this thing around so we have an integrated system. In the long run we want to come up with at least three basic career centers where people can walk through the door and get services irrespective of their eligibility for any one thing. 

Shepherd: So you would fit them into the right program? 

Sykes: Yes. The bureaucratic stuff is a bear. You know—“You can’t mix our funds with that. We can only serve these kinds of people.” We’re going to put a navigator at the door. One third of the money is going to come from TANF, one third is going to come from WIA, one third is going to come from food stamps. They will serve whoever is eligible who comes through that damn door. That’s the fight I’m having. I’m at the point where I’ve got the agencies onboard. UMOS is already doing it, because they have the three funding streams. They’re jockeying stuff around so they can do it. They have more flexibility because they have more funding streams. 

It’s been difficult. The problem is that the bureaucratic differences, and the funding streams, and the rules and regulations conflict with each other. There are three or four different recording systems, data systems. People get frustrated that we spend so much time on that. But then the people who are responsible for the funding say we can’t get the funds unless we use it. 

So we have barriers. We have so focused on the barriers that people have that we have not paid attention to the other side of the equation. There are barriers around how funding streams come in. And they are in many respects responsible for the silos as the inability of the people to coordinate. 

Shepherd: What other barriers have you encountered? 

Sykes: There are also barriers within business itself, which they don’t want to acknowledge. Many of the businesses in our community have not done a lot of hiring in the past 20 years. They have a workforce that has been with them for some time. Those people are getting ready to retire. That’s putting pressure on the businesses, which all of a sudden are interested in the workforce and training people. Same thing for the unions. Their membership is getting ready to retire, too. They are now willing to look at diversity. But it’s not going all the way down. The leadership in many times understands the need to be more diverse, in labor and business. But it’s not filtering down to HR [human resources] people. There is some resistance to these things. 

Shepherd: What about small-business owners? They don’t just retire and get a watch. What are their thoughts on the next generation of workers? 

Sykes: There’s a difference between huge corporations, run by managers, and the companies that are run by owners. It cuts both ways. In some of the larger corporations, they have access to more modern technology and management processes. But oftentimes, because of their size, if the executive understands it and sees it, that doesn’t mean that it comes down through the system. 

Quick story—a woman from Marriott spoke at a convention. Marriott’s headquarters is in Washington. She said, “I told my boss we have a huge turnover—100%. Give me $1 million and I’ll save us $4 million.” They gave her the money. She learned all of the problems of the workers that were coming in to HR, the problems low-income workers were having. She started developing a database. These were the people who were cleaning the rooms and working in the restaurants. In D.C. you have a huge immigrant population. As an HR person she learned how to help people, the workers who were there.

I never thought I would quote Donald Rumsfeld. He said you go to war with the army you have. HR people have to work with the people who are out there. What you have right now is some HR people who have for 20 years been working with a set group of people, a group of people who, mind you, if they walked into one of today’s plants with the skill level they had initially, they would be having the same problems that the minorities are having today when we say they don’t have the skills. But back then business was simpler, manufacturing was simpler. So back then you came in and if you had a strong back and basic intelligence you could do the jobs. They’ve been there 30 years and they’ve learned the more sophisticated skills on the job. The skill level for manufacturing now is up here and back then it was down here. These guys have it now. The HR people know how to work with them. 

The HR people are now dealing with folks who were not in that group and they are not sensitive to that. They’re saying things like, “I’m not a social worker, these people need to come in here ready made.” Whereas the woman at Marriott learned how to help them. 

If you can get people up to the level where they can get a job, HR people help them, and then these young brothers get on the floor of the plant and run into all of the racist behavior of their co-workers and they quit. So those are the problems. 

Shepherd: What about the barriers that job seekers have? 

Sykes: We talk about the individual barriers, which everyone likes to talk about. I’m convinced that we have a population that we’re trying to work with that I break into thirds. 

The top third are people who are just not connected because they don’t know anyone who’s working. They don’t know anyone who has a job. How do most of us get our jobs? Not through the newspaper. You get it through people you know. They say, “So-and-so say their plant is hiring.” So these people are disconnected and they need to be connected to a job. And because they are disconnected they may have some of these other problems. They don’t have role models who go to work every day. One of the benefits that I knew would come out of New Hope was that the kids, boys, who were in our experimental group had fewer problems in school and did better in school because they had a model of someone getting up every day and going to work and being responsible. 

The middle third are able to work but need some assistance in taking supervision. One of the biggest problems of African Americans is the issue of respect. So the question of taking orders from someone is a hard thing because it’s tied up in my image of myself versus that’s their role and this is my role. This group may have driver’s license issues, and those issues are around poverty, not poor driving. You go to the suburban courts and people are there because they ran a light or hit something. But if you go to court here in the city, you see kids, at 17, got busted without a driver’s license, never paid the fine, then ended up doing time for it and being a felon. That is a mark on them forever. We need to change that law and not punish people for being poor. Drugs are an issue. This is rather controversial, but we need to decriminalize marijuana. We need to deal with it. I can see people who are concerned about their workers, at heavy equipment companies, but the question is if they are high on the job. All around the world, companies are producing without this nonsense. The other piece about this second group is that they can’t pass the drug test, they don’t have driver’s licenses, and they may need some basic computer familiarity. Many companies require you to sign up online. And many workers need to brush up on their basic math and reading skills. But their attitudes and their capacity to work are there. 

Then you have the third group, and it’s a significant group in the country and the city, and these people have multiple barriers. You have all of the things we just identified—plus they have tremendous psychic stress. Kids who live in many of these families can’t sleep at night for fear that someone is going to jump into bed with them or there are guns going off. We don’t acknowledge that stress that is being internalized in families. We know that we are dealing with a huge problem of re-entry from prisons. Somewhere in the neighborhood of 4,000 a year are coming back to Milwaukee. Add to that the people who are already here who have felony convictions. I wanted to avoid the re-entry issue until I looked at its impact on our community. It’s phenomenal. It’s not just the 4,000 who are coming back every year. It’s their families. And then I started looking at the fact that it skews all of our data. A lot of our data about employment and unemployment excludes this population. So you put them back into the equation—I look at the number of felons who have been denied the opportunity to vote, and if they could vote in those communities, it would change the politics of this country.

Now put that up against the modern trend in workforce development, which is demand driven to meet the needs of business. So everybody wants us to train people for the jobs that exist. The idea of training people independent of jobs is now pass. That’s not going to work if you want to deal with the bottom third. You’ve got to devote resources to them to bring them up to a level where they can participate in workforce development. Our mayor has been going down to speak to the Racine Correctional Institute to encourage them to try and seek a better life. Motivational stuff. We want to sign up counselors to these people three to six months before they get out so that somebody is working with them on skills development, education, living situations and jobs. If we can do these things for people when they first get out, we can cut the recidivism rate 30% or 40%. … 

Shepherd: What about providing incentives to students so that they stay in school and get good grades? 

Sykes: This guy from Harvard, he started a grammar school in Harlem—he’s a young guy. He got some foundations to give him some money and he’s paying these kids for A’s on exams and to study. He was on TV. The kids said, “When I would try to study, people would say, ‘Here’s that bookworm’ and made fun of me.” Now when he says he’s coming from the library because he wants to ace a test to get $25, they say, “You get paid?” Now everybody is studying because you get paid and it’s a good thing. 

Shepherd: Are you looking at what the mayors of New York, Los Angeles and Chicago are doing? 

Sykes: Both Los Angeles and New York have to do things because their problems are so monumental. And their mayors are forward-thinking people. But they have to do it. They recognize that if they don’t do it, their problems will overwhelm them. So in some respects it’s necessity that’s driving them, not insight. Which leads to one of my Sykes theories: We make progress when there’s an ass kicking coming down the road bigger than the one we’re messing around with today. Then we solve this problem. 

Shepherd: Even Richie Daley is doing things in Chicago.

Sykes: Daley is doing it. What really got me is when Daley decided not to cut services any more to cut taxes. We’re destroying our parks, we’re destroying our infrastructure and we wonder what’s wrong with our kids, but we’ve taken away all of our recreation. And families are all stressed out because they used to go to a park that isn’t kept up and they’re falling apart and they may be scared for their safety.

Shepherd: How should President Obama handle job training? Should that be a big part of his stimulus package? 

Sykes: Everybody needs a coat. There are certain kinds of things that need a national floor. We are the only developed country that tries to do everything based on the individual—the Horatio Alger story. Every other country has some sort of platform to put under their citizens. One of the things we need is universal health insurance. We need to increase the minimum wage. One of the things that has come out of this meltdown is the recognition of the disparity in incomes of corporate giants compared to the rest of us. We need to have a fundamental minimum wage that allows people to rent a market-rate apartment as a minimum. We need to expand unemployment insurance for crises like the one we’re going through right now. We need to invest more in training, so when workers’ unemployment insurance runs out, they can continue training.  

With this new administration, we’re talking about this huge expenditure on infrastructure. If we do what we’ve done in the past, it will not benefit the low-income people in this city. Everyone’s talking about ladders and pipelines to help people to move up. We need to make sure that the first rung of the ladder is low enough that we can catch that middle group of people I told you about. That’s where we have these fairly healthy black males—not just black males, but poor people, Hispanic, Hmong, white. So we need to bring that ladder down to the point where we can do infrastructure jobs. 

I want to use as an example what the DOT did with the Marquette Interchange. Instead of having these big contracts that minority-owned firms can’t compete for, we need to break these jobs up into smaller sizes so that smaller companies and minority-owned companies can participate. But we need to break up jobs, too, into two levels. So the first level may be a more labor-intensive position. Right now we have these jobs structured so that they’re the most efficient, which may require more sophisticated skills. We need to break the job up so that there are entry-level opportunities. We have people with good strong backs. If we’re doing road construction, they can move dirt, they can do manual labor. But we’ve set the bar so high that for them to be able to move dirt around, they’re required to do more sophisticated activities. 

I want to work with our organized labor brothers so that we can figure out the real pipeline that allows these people to come in and work and if we can put them on some kind of on-the-job training so that if they work so many hours then they can get paid to finish their GED or other things that they need to correct. If we really want to have an impact on these people, then we need to provide stipends for people who are in training. 

There’s nothing wrong with training people in down times, if there are no jobs. Some people think you should only train for the jobs that are available. But we need to say, it’s a down time, how do we be smart and pick the core skills that will be needed in the future so that the workers have the basic skills and the company can top off those skills with more specific ones when they are hired. 

I also think that we need to focus on the sector approach by bringing together communities of interest. Health care is going to be a major employer as we age as a population. So we should bring together hospitals and major clinics and the training institutions and technical colleges and universities and other professional trainers and community groups that recruit people. We can create a community of interest. They can begin to look at their immediate needs, for the next six months to two years, to down the road, five to 10 years—that would affect the educational institutions more. 

Shepherd: You mention this idea of training during a recession. We seem to see no problem with college graduates complaining they can’t find a job and then going to law school or graduate school. That is a lot of taxpayer money going to these folks. But could you comment on why we aren’t doing that with poor people? 

Sykes: I’ll give you an example of training during down times—Toyota. It’s been the classic auto manufacturer. What happens when Toyota’s sales are down? They put their people into training.
 We need to do the same kind of thing right now. Our task at the WIB is to find people jobs. But there are no jobs out there. We’ve got some businessmen saying Bucyrus is hiring welders, Tramont is hiring welders. But there are some bottlenecks in different areas, and a company is looking for a specific kind of worker, but they aren’t looking at the big picture. There are probably a sufficient amount of welders in our community, but they’re in transition from one job or someone got a new contract and needs workers today. We have failed to keep our pipelines filled so that when people are ready to hire you’ve got sufficient numbers of people who have been through training. 

We need to invest in our workforce and moving people up. We have not invested in our low-income community in a long time. 

Shepherd: The conservatives are going to say, “Why should our tax dollars go to all of these social experiments? I run my business, I hire them, I train them, why can’t people take care of their own business?” 

Sykes: We are the only wealthy country in the world that has that attitude. Every place in the 25 most developed countries has universal health care. We’re the only place that doesn’t give people a paid vacation. They have family-friendly benefits that encourage the stabilization of the family. One of the things that we put a blanket over as Americans in leading us to believe that we are at the leading edge is that for the wealthy in this country we have the best health science and the best medical technology, but the worst delivery system. 

When people ask why we should make this investment, I tell them we should make it because of the general welfare of this country and social justice. If there’s a crisis, we call up everyone for war. And it costs so much money for us to not do it. If I add up what it costs for us to put people in prison, or for the dysfunctional behaviors of our kids, the stress that we put on our families and the fear that the rest of us live in—we would all be better off if we made the investment. 

Shepherd: How does Milwaukee’s business community compare to other cities’? 

Sykes: Milwaukee’s business community is varied. When I look at the example set by Jeff Joerres and Manpower, I’m impressed. They moved their headquarters downtown and they’re making investments in the city. We have other standouts. We have small businesses like Palermo’s Pizza who are employing large numbers of youths. 

There are some small-business leaders who are really interested in working with the community. Kim Wall, who owns Ma Baensch, has been working very hard to help people who have just gotten out of prison. She gets involved. 

The mayor is working with us on summer and youth employment programs. We have grown the youth program from 500 to 1,500 and for the first time we have 500 slots for year-round positions. We’re focusing on green technology and exposing kids to green technology. One of our prides and joys is a conservation program supported by Johnson controls, We Energies and the Bader Foundation. 

Then there are some who want to try to make a difference. I acknowledge Tim Sullivan and Bucyrus’s commitment to get involved. I don’t necessarily agree with their philosophy, but I acknowledge their commitment to get involved. He has volunteered to be the chair of the governor’s Workforce Investment Board. 

Shepherd: Can Milwaukee still be a manufacturing center? 

Sykes: Sometimes when I look at Milwaukee I think we can dwell on all of the negative things but maybe one of the best things that we have is that we have been through the loss of all of these thousands of manufacturing jobs. I don’t know if we’ve hit bottom, but now the curve may swing upward for us in terms of the kinds of development that we will see coming down the pike. I’m convinced that even with the best-case scenario for manufacturing we will only employ a third of our potential employees. 

A lot of people don’t like the idea of customer service, retail and hospitality because they’re not high-paying jobs, but I think that’s an area that’s going to grow. It’s also an area that we want to begin to train people in. It may be the easiest transition into employment for some people. 

We are participating in a national demonstration for sectorial employment in three areas. The first is construction. We’re working with Wisconsin Regional Training Partnership on expanding the opportunities to work in construction. We’re working with the Bader Foundation. They just issued a matching grant for this national grant to make health care our second sector that we will develop. And next year we’re going to look at manufacturing. Customer service, hospitality and tourism is another one we chose to fund and work on ourselves. I look down the pike into the future and I see that robots and computers will do the production work. But we need a workforce that knows how to talk to each other, how to listen to each other, problem-solve and work in a group. I think you learn those skills in customer service. 

Shepherd: The Milwaukee 7 came up with a few areas to work with. How do they compare with yours?

Sykes: The M7 has primarily focused on high-end and high-tech jobs because their focus is on how to keep the region competitive on an international level. While I support what they’re doing I don’t think it covers everybody in the county. We have to make sure that we do concentrate on some of those sectors where we’re not exporting and the people benefiting from that sector are in our community. For example, health care and customer service. We need to do both. But the high-end stuff is not going to deal with our problem with poverty. So the M7—they’re talking about biotechnology and high-end technologies. I’m talking about health care. 

Shepherd: For many of the high-end jobs, there would be a national search for employees. 

Sykes: Not only that, but the M7 is focusing on export industries, period. So they’re only looking at those companies that are producing things that will be sold outside of our area. That does bring money into the area. But you’re talking engineers. We’re blessed with four or five of the major engineering companies, which I didn’t realize—Eaton, Johnson Controls, DRS Technologies, Rockwell and GE Medical. Those companies are building the networks and brains for nuclear subs and other things. We need to keep them and we need to have as many engineers as we can. But at the same time when those engineers come to town and they have to pass through a poverty-stricken neighborhood with people standing on the corner with no jobs and a high crime rate, it’s not going to help the image of our community. So we need to deal with both. 

Another example of a good company is DRS Technologies. They are a high-end engineering firm but they recognize that the community is in need and they have worked with the Northwest Side Community Development Corp. to have an incubator to help develop small businesses so that people in the neighborhood have employment. They’re making an investment in the community beyond their immediate engineering needs. 

Shepherd: What are your thoughts on the welfare reform of the 1990s? 

Sykes: I was in Washington when we put welfare reform together. The idea was to have this system so that if someone walked into a welfare office they would sit down with a counselor and come up with a plan for two years to get them off of it. In addition to that plan, they would get health care, an increase in the minimum wage, and earned income tax credit. That bill went over to the Republicans in Congress and it came back not with a two-year plan, but two years and you get kicked off if you don’t have a job, and five years, max. No increase in minimum wage, and no health care. 

I must say that while Republicans were responsible for putting that together, and Tommy Thompson used the traditional Republican rhetoric, Tommy took the need for child care and health care so Wisconsin’s workforce system was not the worst of all of those. 

When the Republicans got through with that welfare bill we just thought there was going to be a race to the bottom. Two things prevented that. One, we had a good economy. A lot of people got kicked off but there were jobs available. Low-income jobs, but those jobs have disappeared since then. Two, here in Wisconsin we came up with BadgerCare and we made an investment in child care. 

Shepherd: You’ve been in Washington and you know how these decisions are made. What advice would you give Obama about the stimulus package? 

Sykes: What I’ve heard from people who are talking to him is that he should be as bold as possible. If he tries to take an incremental approach he’ll never get to where he wants to go. If we can spend $700 billion on bailing out the banks, then he needs to take a real bold approach to raising taxes to put people back to work. In a couple of years, when that starts paying off, it’ll be about the time when he starts running for re-election, and it should coincide with giving him a good shot at getting a second term. 

One of the things I would like to see is his continued approach to technology and the whole community organizing approach. I do compare what he’s facing now with what Franklin Roosevelt faced when he took office—a crisis of unemployment tied to a depression. While we look back at Roosevelt and see that he did some phenomenal things like Social Security and CCC camps and WTA, he didn’t start off doing those things. He was forced into it by people raising Cain. If Obama keeps his network and keeps people involved, they will pressure him and they will lead him. 

Congress is going to be the biggest block. I think he’s going to have a much easier time internationally. I just came back from France and Turkey, and they are so excited about our election. People came up to me on the street to talk about Obama. I think even in Iran and China he’s going to get an opportunity to create a dialogue. He’s going to have more trouble passing things in Congress because of the special interests. Here’s the situation: We gave the banks all of this money and they had the arrogance to say they weren’t going to tell us how they were going to use it, but at the same time the very people who supported the payments to them are saying we can’t give any money to the auto people because they need to take a cut. We don’t want to waste the money. I’m hoping that the meltdown will force us to readjust our priorities and values. Out of every crisis we can make some progress.