As 2019 draws to a close, I find myself reflecting on year one of leading the Department of Workforce Development.
Maybe my family's background in commercial fishing on the Great Lakes (think "Deadliest Catch" with heavy Wisconsin accents) informed our vision, but in this first year our agency prioritized casting a wider and stronger workforce net to achieve greater economic outcomes for Wisconsin. Despite the challenges presented by national trade tensions and a tight labor market, after meeting with Wisconsinites across the state and witnessing the diverse programs administered by DWD and other public and private workforce stakeholders, I can't help but feel proud about our work in 2019 and optimistic heading into 2020.
The "wider net" vision guided our efforts for those reentering society from incarceration. Wisconsin currently has two job centers in correctional facilities, and thanks to the governor's budget, we are proud and excited to open more in 2020. With 9,000 inmates released in Wisconsin annually, we have an opportunity to ensure a productive transition back into society for the benefit of those reentering, our communities, taxpayers, and our economy.
Removing barriers and reducing stigma for people with disabilities through Project SEARCH is another 2019 success story. A record-high 224 young adults graduated this year. This internship and education program leads to competitive integrated employment for graduates, as well as a better understanding of the incredible assets people with disabilities bring to our economy.
A wider net also means meeting our customers where they are. This fall, we delivered Wisconsin's first mobile job center, capable of traversing our great state to employer hiring events, technical colleges, community festivals and other destinations. The mobile job center has already hit the pavement throughout Wisconsin to help place more Wisconsinites in quality jobs.
When it comes to a "stronger net," we are proud to have a record number of youth apprentices enrolled this year (5,099), with an expected 10% increase for the 2020-21 school year. We continue to be bullish on the "earn and learn" model of skills training, and youth apprenticeship offers the unique opportunity for high schoolers to test drive industries, companies and careers, while simultaneously introducing businesses to potential long-term employees.
We have seen a record 28% increase in utilization of our bridge program, guiding youth apprentices into registered apprenticeships. As we introduce apprenticeship opportunities in new industries, such as IT, health care and finance, we hope more individuals will consider apprenticeship as a cost-effective approach to pursuing both their education and career. Our Pre-Apprenticeship Readiness Program, which won the 2019 Diversity Award from the State Council on Affirmative Action, is ensuring more people can successfully enter and complete apprenticeship programs.
Other accomplishments we are excited to share include a record-high Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund balance which reached $2 billion and our expansive outreach efforts. DWD offers important services that we want Wisconsinites to know about and access. In this digital age, we've made it a point to tell our agency's story and share the impact of our programs and how to access them through social media and our new "On, Wisconsin Workforce" podcast, which also features state workforce news and trends. We are also thrilled to be launching a new, more streamlined and user-friendly website on Jan. 2.
Of course, the successes of 2019 mark only the start of our state's workforce journey. With all hands on deck, we'll continue our course for greater workforce recruitment, higher wages and strong worker protections to ensure a Wisconsin economy that works for everyone in 2020 and the years to come.
Caleb Frostman is secretary-designee of the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development.
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