Once upon a time, Wisconsin was a shining beacon for workers’ rights, leading our nation with policies that protected safety, encouraged fair wages and promoted a relationship between employees and employers rooted in shared prosperity.
Unfortunately, over the decades, too many leaders disregarded that proud history in favor of policies that undermined opportunities for workers and the needs of their employers. COVID-19 exposed and accelerated the impact of those policies.
As our state emerges from the pandemic, it’s time to take stock of how we can grow a workforce development model that provides genuine opportunity for all in a 21st century economy.
Recently at the Milwaukee headquarters of Wisconsin Regional Training Partnership | Building Industry Group and Skilled Trades Employment Program (WRTP | BIG STEP), U.S. Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh met with workers who have defied odds and overcome barriers to employment. He highlighted the importance of pairing high-quality training with effective workforce development partnerships.
A passionate believer in the president’s blueprint for American prosperity, Secretary Walsh noted that a strong economy is always built on a healthy middle class, and that in turn is most effectively and equitably built by strong unions.
A critical component is training. Historically, job seekers were expected to invest their own time and money to meet the competency needs and skill demands of employers. This was a viable arrangement when employer needs remained static over long periods of time. But today the skills workers are required to evolve at a much faster pace. Job seekers often cannot keep up with the necessary skills that employers require to remain competitive and responsive to regional and global markets.
On average, the United States spends just one-fifth as much as other advanced economies on workforce and labor market programs. To ensure economic competitiveness and prosperity for businesses and workers alike, we need a greater investment in training. Strategies that create affordable learning opportunities for working parents, with high-quality training that’s responsive to employer needs, pay enormous dividends.
The benefits of comprehensive and ongoing workforce development are well understood by companies that pay family supporting wages, that compete based on the quality of their services and products, and that cooperatively engage workers and their representatives in building skills and innovation. Organizations such as WRTP | BIG STEP and the Wisconsin AFL-CIO are natural partners for these employers.
As our state and nation recover from the devastating challenges of a deadly pandemic and a reckoning on race that reveals deep disparities, we need to recognize that our workers are the most valuable resource. Empowering them with the tools and policies necessary to flourish will build an economy that works for every person and industry.
This means funding high-quality training to build the next generation of apprentices and journey workers who will renew and reinvigorate the union workforce essential for a strong middle class.
Together, we can build back a stronger, more resilient and equitable Wisconsin that provides new opportunities for workers and the companies that employ them.