A special legislative committee met in Madison on Monday to discuss ways to get high schools in Wisconsin to better serve the needs of business.
Manufacturers in southeastern Wisconsin say they have a problem. They claim that jobs are going unfilled because they can’t attract suitably trained employees, and they blame the public schools for inadequately preparing students for the “real world” of work.
Even though Janesville, Racine, and Milwaukee have the highest unemployment rates in the state, manufacturers claim that job seekers from those cities aren’t qualified for the positions on offer – that there is a “skills gap” between job seekers and the requirements of the employers. When pushed to identify those skills, they invariably characterize them as “soft skills” – a corporate term for a cluster of personal qualities, habits, attitudes, and social graces that make someone an obedient and dependable employee.
They complain about job applicants not arriving at an interview on time or being able to pass a drug test or having a felony conviction on their record. They also complain about a poor work ethic among job seekers. But they don’t have any actual data or evidence to back up these claims. They are all just strongly and oft-asserted opinions.
Some manufacturers also claim that they can’t fill high-skilled engineering positions, but they don’t mention the salaries, benefits, and terms of employment associated with those jobs. A search of mechanical engineering positions currently open in the Milwaukee metropolitan area requiring a minimum of a bachelor’s degree and five years of experience yielded the most results in the $30,000 - $50,000/year salary category. Some of those positions are offered on a contract or temporary basis, meaning no benefits.
Over the past year I’ve been writing about legislative and public policy initiatives designed to align public education at all levels with the workforce demands of corporations. This article published in January debunked claims made by Tim Sullivan, former CEO of mining equipment manufacturer Bucyrus (now owned by Caterpillar) that Milwaukee Area Technical College wasn’t training enough welders. Those same bogus claims have been raised again and again as a pretext for shifting the financial burden of employee training away from private companies and onto the ever-diminishing resources in the state budget.
Already this year Scott Walker has signed into law a measure that stacks the governing board of the Milwaukee Area Technical College with business owners, giving them control of program, curriculum, hiring, and firing decisions.
Walker signed another law that shifts the labor and training costs of a probationary employee at a private company onto the public by tapping unemployment insurance and state worker compensation funds should the worker get injured on the job.
Here’s how it works: The state compensates a worker for their probation period at a private corporation with a paltry amount of unemployment insurance. The corporation receives the value of the workers’ labor, and gets a chance to vet the worker before deciding if they actually want to offer them a job. Since the worker is not actually employed by the company, they have no rights with regards to injury, working conditions or grievance processes. They are covered under the State of Wisconsin’s workers compensation policy.
Evidently, those two laws weren’t enough for Wisconsin manufacturers, so they’re now going after K-12 education resources through their legislative champions Sen. Luther Olsen (R-Ripon) and Rep. Paul Farrow (R-Pewaukee). They are the chair and co-chair of the newly formed Special Committee on Improving Educational Opportunities in High School, which met for the first time yesterday. The committee is “directed to develop legislation to create and enhance opportunities for both lower and higher achieving students in high school.”
More specifically, “the committee shall: evaluate current options available to high school students for both career and technical education and post-secondary enrollment, including the Youth Options Program; examine both career and technical education and post-secondary enrollment options available to high school students in other states; and determine how to promote coordination between high schools, technical colleges, universities, and employers to ensure that high school students have the skills necessary to meet the workforce needs of employers in this state.”
In other words, they will work on developing laws that use the public education system to orient, train, and track kids into the corporate working world at a young age. Rep. Farrow mentioned that he would like that tracking to begin in first grade. But Tim Sullivan, who appeared before the committee as Scott Walker’s recently appointed “Special Consultant for Business and Workforce Development,” has even more ambitious ideas: “In workforce development we say, you begin at birth and end at the grave.”
There are five legislative members of the nineteen-person committee, six public high school or technical college administrators, four manufacturers and business people, and three people from the world of private voucher schools in the Milwaukee area. Only one committee member is not from the southeast quadrant of the state. She is Joni Burgin, superintendent of Grantsburg School District in western Wisconsin, which operates a virtual charter school geared toward “career pathways.” In her introductory comments, Burgin mentioned that she would like the outcome of the committee to be the removal of regulatory barriers so that her school could be expanded.
The only business interests represented around the table were manufacturers, despite the evidence given by Dennis Winters, chief economist of the Department of Workforce Development, that the largest actual workforce needs exemplified by the fifteen fastest growing occupations in the state have nothing to do with manufacturing. They are mostly low-wage health care, retail, and service occupations.
That inconvenient fact bruised the pride of Suzanne Kelley, president of the Waukesha County Business Alliance, who asserted that manufacturers have workforce development needs too, but it did not stop the committee from forging ahead with what appeared to be a pre-determined direction focused on manufacturing.
Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce Foundation President Jim Morgan told the group that WMC would be spearheading a public awareness campaign highlighting October as Manufacturing Month. They plan to create and disseminate information about “the value, impact, and demand for manufacturing” in schools and local chambers of commerce.
In his presentation to the group, Dennis Winters focused on the need to increase workers’ productivity: “If we don’t raise the productivity of the worker in Wisconsin, our whole economy is going to stagnate.” While others who came before the committee talked about redistributing resources already in the budget, Winters made a point of pushing for increased investment in public education, particularly early childhood and technical education.
Speaking bluntly Winters said, “If 70% of jobs in Wisconsin over the next 20 years won’t require a bachelor’s degree, then the middle 80% of kids who don’t drop out or go to college are our sweet spot. We need to find every single body we can and train it up to its maximum potential.”
Sen. Glenn Grothman (R-West Bend), champion of anti-intellectuals everywhere, agreed that public schools should drop their orientation toward college. “People on this committee are predisposed to think that education is the answer to everything. But we have to be careful to understand that there are people without college degrees who are wildly successful.” Governor Scott Walker, for one.
Rep. Sondy Pope-Roberts (D-Cross Plains) was one of two people who mentioned teachers during the entire five-hour meeting, registering her disappointment that they were not represented on the committee. She also reminded everyone of the larger context: “You can’t keep cutting funding for public education and expect better results.”
Not having teachers at the table made it easier to cast aspersions on them. Bill Hughes, director of leadership development for Schools That Can, a nonprofit that fundraises for choice schools in Milwaukee, took pot shots at teachers all day. “When you start to look at changing what schools look like, you take on entrenched interests,” he said. By that he meant teachers and the state Department of Public Instruction that certifies them. “Our teacher certification process is ridiculous. We have to look at alternative certification processes.”
There was a lot of discussion about the school-to-work “pipeline” and how it is broken. Tim Sullivan put it this way: “We have effectively disenfranchised two generations of Wisconsinites. When the system switched in the 1980s from choices in high school, those choices were taken away when the entire curriculum switched to college prep. We broke the pipeline in the 1980s.”
Another inconvenient fact that wasn’t even hinted at, however, is that also beginning in the 1980s trade unions came under attack and with them, the apprenticeship programs that were responsible for a great deal of on-the-job skills training and performance evaluation now so sorely missed by manufacturers.
Indeed, as the meeting wore on, participants were more and more hard pressed to stay on message. As economic and workforce data was presented to the group, it became increasingly difficult to avoid the conclusion that the workforce crisis the committee is charged to deal with is the direct result of decades of increasing social and economic inequality, systematic divestment from public education, and the consequences of regressive social policies like union busting and the lack of commitment to fair housing and universal health care.
Manpower VP Melanie Holmes was the last presenter for the day. She did directly mention some of these points, but fell short of fully addressing them. “The gap between the haves and have-nots is widening,” she said. “Underlying this gap are social issues that are preventing parents from supporting their kids in school.” Holmes made reference to the African American and Latino population of Milwaukee and said, “Companies need to know how to deal with those minorities.” Her suggestion? Teach “soft skills” at all levels in every institution of public learning.
As a college graduate who is not-so-wildly-successful, I stopped myself from the impulse to share the fruits of my (mostly public) education with Holmes by informing her that in the history of Western colonialism, cultural assimilation projects don’t have a very good track record.
By the end of the afternoon it was obvious that the stated charge of the committee was not very well aligned with the intentions of its conveners, which appear to be the doling out of legislative favors to a small, select group of political supporters. One person had the gumption to acknowledge this disconnect.
Patricia Neudecker, superintendent of the Oconomowoc Area School District, asked, “Do we even have a common understanding of how the current system works? We’re going to get nowhere if we don’t have that basis for discussion.” She went on to name the bigger elephant in the room: “We have a public education system because we want an educated citizenry. To have that is not something we should lose sight of.”
The Special Committee on Improving Educational Opportunities in High School will meet monthly through the end of the year.
Rebecca Kemble  reports for The Progressive magazine and website. She also participates when she can in the Solidarity Sing Along.