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Wednesday, March 11, 2009

As Jobs Vanish, Demand for Training Jumps

Area colleges look to boost programs, facilities

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Laid-off workers gave lawmakers an earful at a Monday forum at Milwaukee Area Technical College (MATC).

Downsized employees from Delphi Corp., Glendale’s Strattec Security Corp., Janesville’s Lear Corp. and other job seekers told of their experiences in today’s job market.

Some of their jobs have vanished altogether. Some were moved to Mexico. And others require training that can be hard to come by as increasing numbers of displaced workers are competing for limited space in skill-building programs.

“I thought I would retire from my job,” a former Lear employee told the packed room. Lear shut down its plant in Janesville in December, where 381 workers had made seats for vehicles manufactured at the now-shuttered General Motors plant nearby. The employee now drives to MATC twice a week because the courses she needs are not available at Blackhawk Technical College in Janesville.

Others spoke of the success they’ve found at MATC, including becoming proficient in English, learning a new trade, retooling a career search, or simply finding support and sound advice while they hunt for a new job during a recession.

“We’re All Going to Come Out of This Thing Better Than We Were”

Assembly Speaker Mike Sheridan (D- Janesville), a former auto assembly worker and labor leader, provided encouragement to the dislocated workers. “I started working at General Motors when I was 18 years old, the day after I graduated from high school,” Sheridan told them. “I had low self-esteem. But these [training] facilities help us to discover who we really are. Even though the times are trying, we’re all going to come out of this thing better than we were.”

Sheridan, along with state Rep. Pedro Colon (D-Milwaukee), state Rep. Cory Mason (D-Racine) and state Rep. Barbara Toles (D-Milwaukee), the chair of the Assembly’s Committee on Workforce Development, listened to the testimony and discussed how job-training programs—specifically at MATC—can serve these job seekers.

Toles, a former MATC career planning teacher, said that she’s heard from area employers that they need workers with training in a particular area, but that not enough job seekers have the relevant experience. “Employers have identified the current jobs that are available,” Toles said. “But the problem is with the skill set. And these are the skills that are being taught at technical colleges.”

An Opportunity on the South Side

Roger Hinkle, a case manager at the HIRE Center, a partner of MATC, said his organization could play a key role in helping southeastern Wisconsin job seekers develop new skills and find steady work, even during tough economic times. The HIRE Center, located at MATC’s Milwaukee Enterprise Center South at 816 W. National Ave., provides employment counseling and retraining services for dislocated workers who have been laid off by their employers.

Hinkle said that when the economy turns around, the need for skilled manufacturing technicians will outstrip supply. “The current period of retrenchment is, therefore, critical for dislocated workers to retrain for more advanced occupations within the industrial sector,” Hinkle said.

He said federal stimulus funds will flow into the state quickly for dislocated worker training “at unprecedented levels in Milwaukee.”

Yet he said that some critical resources— including training facilities and bilingual instructors and curricula—are limited. “While the HIRE Center is aggressively gearing up facilities and staffing to meet the surge of dislocated workers, our case managers are facing bottlenecks caused by the growing demand for training literally overwhelming MATC’s capacity to provide that training,” Hinkle said.

He suggested expanding shop-based, hands-on training programs at the National Avenue building, where two block-long floors are vacant or underutilized. “This underutilized space would be ideal for setting up perhaps as many as six training shops for such green-impact ‘middle skills’ occupational training areas such as sheet metal, pipe fitting, welding and fabrication, HVAC, machining, carpentry and weatherization,” Hinkle said.

He asked the legislators for more state support for the program. “Obviously, this plan would require substantial investment by the college—all the more reason for the state to direct additional funds to MATC to help create this needed capacity,” Hinkle said.

What’s your take?

Write: editor@shepex.com or comment on this story online at www.expressmilwaukee.com.

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