Businesses in the Milwaukee area say there are not enough skilled workers to fill available jobs.
We heard about that frustration Tuesday when WUWM’s LaToya Dennis spoke with local managers. Today, in our Project Milwaukee: Help Wanted series, we learn how people seeking jobs are striving to acquire the skills needed.
Often the journey is punctuated by emotion.
Fresh paint covers brick walls along a hallway of the old Square D factory. Roger Hinkle says its workers made electrical transformers.
"I went in and worked with workers in that factory education center and so they could work on their basic educational skills but within a few years that closed and this building became transformed to a newer use," Hinkle says during a tour of the center.
Today’s newer use is called the HIRE Center, and Hinkle serves as one of its training specialists. The agency is tucked inside the Milwaukee Enterprise Center-South at 8th and National. It uses federal funds to retrain workers who’ve been displaced due to factors beyond their control.
“People coming into this program come from every walk of life, every background, the common thing they have is they’ve lost their jobs," Hinkle says.
The center provides a range of services. It teaches some how to run complex machinery. For others, it offers a basic education. Hinkle says often mixed in, is the need to overcome the pain and fear of losing a job.
I hear those emotions in the voices of Connie Skonecki and Robin Klein. Skonecki’s job evaporated when the t-shirt factory where she worked outsourced production.
"It’s devastating, especially when you’re there for 16, 18 years, you lose it all," she says. I ask if she has a family. "My kids are grown but I got grandchildren," Skonecki says and adds job loss has had an impact on her extended family. "I can’t get ‘em anything," she says.
Robin Klein nods knowingly at the story. She tumbled into the ranks of the unemployed when the day care center where she worked closed abruptly.
"There’s not enough jobs out here for people nowadays because they don’t have the skills," Klein says.
Klein says she quickly realized she needs her GED, so that’s what she’s tackling.
According to the HIRE Center, of the 2,800 people it serves every year, 80 percent find employment.
A few miles south, white sparks dance on the concrete floor as students practice skills they hope will pay off with a family supporting job. This is the welding lab at the Oak Creek campus of MATC and the students’ backgrounds vary from landscaper to chef.
Tom Wicinski drove a forklift until his employer left the state and he lost his $18 an hour job.
"I don’t know if I’ll get into welding. I may. I may not, depending on how my skills will develop. For some people that think welding is easy, they should go out try it," Wicinski says.
Fellow trainee Shannon Bartley has also found parts of the trade, daunting.
"It's a challenge to remember how to do dimensions and figuring it out in your head first before you can actually put it on paper," Bartley says.
A family welder encouraged her to enroll.
Nearby, is Clinton McCarey, a veteran who served with the Army National Guard in Iraq.
"It was miserable. I’m happy to say I made it through, a couple of my soldiers did not, and here I am, picking up a new trade," McCarey says. I ask if he was working prior to enrolling at MATC, following his service. He says, "Yes sir, I was a roofer. I had to wait a year just to get into this program. I was on the waiting list. I’m doing it and I like it," McCarey says.
McCarey will attend classes five days a week for one year. Course material includes not only welding practice, but also math and economics. MATC reports that every graduate last year, landed a job with a manufacturer.
Technical school is not the only route to learning industrial skills.
Equipment is humming at Pereles Brothers on Milwaukee’s northwest side. The company makes plastic parts such as handles for power saws.
President Ted Muccio says he could not find skilled applicants, so he created his own training program.
"We have what we call entry level positions, someone comes in and runs a molding press. They’re given instructions on sheets about what they need to watch for, and then there are some other levels above that,” Muccio says.
Muccio partners with the nearby Silver Spring Neighborhood Center. It identifies potential entry-level workers and gets them up to speed on work readiness skills such as showing up on time.
Derrick Roby joined Pereles Bros. a couple years ago.
"I never knew what a machine operator was, and now, I’m pretty good at what I do. I’m trying to advance in this company," Roby says.
Roby mentioned it was difficult to find a job on account on his background.
"I’m a three time felon, and one thing I like about Pereles, they opened the doors for me and offered a helping hand, which is something that no one would do. Everyone was shutting the door in my face," Roby says.