Project Milwaukee
2:22 pm
Fri June 10, 2011

Project Milwaukee: What's Needed to Move Forward

Community leaders say a skilled and educated workforce along with transportation options for it, are keys to ensuring the economic success of southeastern Wisconsin.

Today we present another installment of our series, Project Milwaukee - Southern Connections. All week we've been exploring development in the Milwaukee-to-Chicago corridor and its potential. WUWM's Marti Mikkelson spoke with several major players here to ask: what must happen in order for our part of the region to prosper. Here's her report.

Bucyrus International CEO Tim Sullivan says he supports commuter rail in order to get people to jobs.

Milwaukee cannot compete successfully in the global economy unless it's part of a blended region extending through the greater Chicago area, according to Pat O'Brien. He's executive director of the Milwaukee 7, a group that formed in 2005 to promote economic development in southeastern Wisconsin.

"It's too expensive for any one community to undertake this alone and an individual community is just not large enough to be relevant to garner the attention and meetings necessary to bring business back to the region," O'Brien says.

O'Brien says members of M7 learned that lesson while attending a trade show in Germany focused on advanced manufacturing. But they also realize Milwaukee has valuable assets to offer the region.

"We have a strong manufacturing heritage and background that meshes well with some of the industries and the automation things that are going on in Europe and being exported around the world. Our labor force and experience and DNA in manufacturing is all helpful," O'Brien says.

And yet…

"We're hearing from companies over and over again, in spite of the high unemployment rates, they need to find more and more qualified workers in order to grow their business," O'Brien says.

Workforce development was the topic of a breakfast meeting this week at the West Bend Mutual Center. Tim Sullivan sipped a cup of coffee while mingling with the crowd of more than 100 community leaders. He's chief executive officer of Bucyrus International, a mining-equipment giant headquartered in South Milwaukee.

According to Sullivan, the company has a great workforce of 1,600 but sometimes has trouble filling positions because applicants lack the necessary skills. So he insists education is essential to the economic success of the corridor.

"Huge, and quite frankly it's probably the thing that needs to be fixed the most. We have no pipeline. Seventy percent of our jobs now in Wisconsin and southeastern Wisconsin require a two-year degree or some kind of advanced degree beyond 12th grade," Sullivan says.

"We need to be at the table with business and have business inform us about what they really need," Dan Clancy says.

That's Dan Clancy, president of the Wisconsin Technical College System. He's also attending this morning's meeting. Clancy says the biggest need in southeastern Wisconsin is for workers in the field of advanced manufacturing. So the technical colleges have put together several short-track programs to begin preparing students.

"We offer both a one-year degree in many manufacturing areas and then we also have two year programs as well. We are also doing a lot more intensive training programs, often referred to as boot camps, where people can get through in a ten to 14 week period and be trained very quickly let's say in machine tooling or welding and they can acquire the basic skills they need and once they're employed they can learn on the job," Clancy says.

Clancy estimates starting salaries in the field range from $28,000 to $40,000. He says the system is working closely with education leaders in Milwaukee and Racine to get students enrolled in the training programs. However, he describes many young people in those two cities' public schools unprepared.

"It's a huge issue. It's an issue that the state and this region have been struggling with for many years. There are pockets of excellence and I think you have to build upon those," Clancy says.

Even if more young people in southeastern Wisconsin are trained for jobs here, some could have difficulty commuting to and from work, particularly in Racine, according to Mayor John Dickert. He says employees and their jobs are no longer necessarily located in close proximity, especially in a region such as southeastern Wisconsin. Dickert is disappointed the Republican-controlled Legislature is poised to end the development of commuter rail linking Milwaukee, Racine and Kenosha.

"The state right now I think is going in a backwards direction. Their emphasis is building more roads. Roads don't help cities like Racine. We're 20 minutes off of the highway. You could build 17 lanes of highway out on the I-System and that won't help Racine at all because you still have to get people into Racine and that's a 20 minute drive," Dickert says.

Dickert says commuter rail would enable his community to grow its tax base. But co-chair of the Legislature's Joint Finance Committee Robin Vos of Burlington says the state is opting for better highways, including the current two billion dollar upgrade of I-94 from Milwaukee to the state line.

"People who try to focus on rail are living in the last century and not the next. We know that the vast majority of people, even in the SEWRPC study, well over 95 percent of trips will still be done by automobile. So, for us to focus on the five percent and not on the 95 percent is really short-sighted," Vos says.

Vos says in the next 20 years, he envisions an explosion of businesses and office parks along I-94 in Racine County because of a more efficient freeway system. He says what Madison is doing to help the region attract employers is making Wisconsin's tax climate more attractive to business.

"We put some proposals into place that say if you move a new company to Wisconsin, for the first two years you'll be able to pay no income taxes as an incentive to get you to locate here. We are also putting into place the potential to have incentives to become the best place in the entire country for manufacturing," Vos says.

Vos is referring to a provision the GOP recently added to the state budget bill that would reduce the tax on manufacturers' production earnings. In addition, lawmakers are proposing a discount on utility bills for manufacturers moving to the state. Vos says future legislatures must continue to provide incentives, in order for the region to better compete in a global marketplace.