CEOs to Consider Creating Jobs on Milwaukee's North Side

Aug 25, 2016

Could jobs be headed to Milwaukee's north side? A local businessman is hopeful, and he’s talking with others.

Tim Sullivan used to lead South Milwaukee giant Bucyrus, a mining manufacturer. Now he's CEO of REV Group, a firm headquartered in Milwaukee, which makes ambulances, buses, street sweepers and a range of other vehicles.

REV Group has bid on a contract with the United States Postal Service to build vans.

Sullivan says the city's north side would be the perfect place to do the work because of the area's huge labor pool.

Many manufacturers that once were located there have moved or gone out of business. Today, unemployment is high in some neighborhoods; so is poverty and crime.

It’s all blamed for the violence that erupted this month in the Sherman Park neighborhood.

WUWM asked Sullivan whether manufacturers have a responsibility to create jobs where they’re lacking.

"I'm not sure if it's a responsibility, but it's certainly, I think, the prudent thing to do," he says.

Sullivan says in manufacturing "you need to seek out where the labor is, and basically take your business to the labor." He says he learned that lesson, after Bucyrus built a $250 million plant in South Milwaukee.

"We felt that the labor from the area would come to South Milwaukee and work in South Milwaukee. I think that was a mistake. I think we should have put a facility in the north side of Milwaukee, right in the heart of where there's significant labor in the city."

In the past, Sullivan has raised concerns about a skills gap in Wisconsin -- that's the concept, disputed by some, that there's a mismatch between the jobs employers are trying to fill, and the talents of the people looking for work.

A few years ago, Sullivan led a panel for Gov. Scott Walker, which examined the skills gap.

WUWM asked Sullivan whether some manufacturers might be hesitant about hiring on Milwaukee's north side, out of concern that job-seekers might not have the right qualifications.

"I think it depends on the jobs that people have available. The type of work that we had at Bucyrus did require a fairly high level of skill, which required a great deal of training. The jobs that we (REV Group) provide today do not require a lot of skills," he says. "It's basically assembly-type work of vehicles, which does not require a high degree of skill (compared to) being a welder or a machinist. These are basically assembly jobs, and assembly jobs are really classified as 'semi-skilled,' which require minimal training. And that's why it's absolutely perfect, because the types of things that we do are literally the types of things that were done on the north side before, with companies like AO Smith and Tower Automotive, so it makes great sense for us to tap into that labor pool if we can."

Sullivan says REV Group isn't the only manufacturer talking about establishing operations on Milwaukee's north side.

"We're putting together a task force of CEOs to look at the north side and employment opportunities for a wide range of companies," he says. "Until we get companies willing to come in to the north side and establish jobs, we just don't think we're going to move the needle. We're just not going to really correct the situation that evolved when the jobs went away."