GE Waukesha training program may become national model

In the heart of one of Wisconsin’s most conservative counties, Democratic President Barack Obama on Thursday identified a worker training program that he said could be a model for the country.

In the wake of Tuesday night’s State of the Union address, Obama visited a handful of cities across the country, including an appearance at General Electric’s Waukesha Gas Engines plant.

In a speech lasting just under 25 minutes, the president echoed messages of his economic and domestic agenda from the State of the Union address. His remarks in Waukesha focused on job training, raising the minimum wage, equal pay for women and health care reform, in addition to bigger picture messages about the U.S. economy.

“Today, we learned that in the second half of last year our economy grew by 3.7 percent,” Obama said. “We still have more work to do, but that’s pretty strong. And our businesses led the way. Over the past year, the private sector grew faster than at any time in over a decade.

“And that’s why I believe this can be a breakthrough year for America. After five years of hard work, digging ourselves out of the worst recession of our lifetimes, we are now better positioned in the 21st century than any other country on Earth. We’ve got all the ingredients we need to make sure that America thrives,” he said.

In front of a large banner that read, “Opportunity For All,” the president outlined his four-part “opportunity agenda.”

Those four parts are to: “(create) new jobs;” “train Americans with the skills to fill those jobs;” “guarantee every child access to a world-class education;” and “make sure hard work pays off.”

At the speech’s conclusion, President Obama signed a presidential memorandum – not an executive order, as he initially stated – for “Job-Driven Training for Workers.” Full text of the memorandum can be viewed here.

“Here today at GE, I’m making it official: Vice President (Joe) Biden, a man who was raised on the value of hard work and is tenacious, is going to lead an across-the-board review of America’s training programs,” Obama said.

The review led by Biden will take a “jobs-driven approach to training,” Obama said.

“What we’re going to do is we’re going to review all of federal job training programs, soup to nuts,” said Obama. “And then we’re also going to be supporting local ones. I’ve asked Vice President Biden and top officials in the federal government to reach out to governors, mayors, business leaders, labor leaders, Democratic and Republican members of Congress – let’s find what programs are working best and let’s duplicate them and expand them.”

The jobs training programs in place at General Electric’s Waukesha Gas Motors plant “can be a model for the country,” said Obama, praising both the plant’s youth and adult apprenticeship programs.

The GE Waukesha Gas Motors plant has added more than 120 manufacturing jobs since 2011, said Lorraine Bolsinger, president and CEO of GE’s Distributed Power Business.

“GE has invested a great deal in this plant since it acquired it in 2010,” said Bolsinger. “We’ve invested in technology that goes into the engines, in engineering and research, and on our manufacturing shop floor, to have the most productive, most competitive costs for the product that we make. We have very sophisticated machine tools that have to be operated, so we need a very skilled workforce to do that.”

The plant has 700 total employees, 400 of whom are part of a unionized manufacturing workforce. General Electric has invested nearly $35 million in Waukesha Gas Engines since 2011.

After 12 months of employment, full-time hourly wages at Gas Engines range from $18.40 to $30.30 (effective May 1, 2013), said Brittany Darga, GE Healthcare communications specialist.
“Last year, this plant had record performance,” said Bolsinger.

The company has worked with the Wisconsin Regional Training Partnership (WRTP) to train employees.

“I think it’s a great marriage and partnership with the state of Wisconsin,” said Bolsinger. “I think it can be replicated in other places where we know what the goal is. We have a job for a person and we train them specifically for that (job).”

In attendance at the event was Katherine Gehl, president and chief executive officer of West Bend-based Gehl Foods Inc., who spoke recently at the 2014 Northern Trust Economic Trends Breakfast presented by BizTimes. Gehl said job training is the “right focus” for the Obama administration.

“(Job training) is a huge issue,” Gehl said. “We need to increase the skills of the workforce to match up with the jobs that there are – not the jobs that there used to be, but the jobs there are now.”

Several high-profile business leaders and politicians were also in attendance at the event, including former Gov. Jim Doyle.

“What (President Obama) was laying out today seemed to me to be a very practical and direct solution to a problem that plagues the country, which is getting people trained for the right jobs,” said Doyle. “I’m very proud of Wisconsin. We’ve done a lot of these things over the years. We began – a number of years ago – a program that allowed employers to get grants to deal directly with technical colleges to train for specific jobs. Those are the kinds of things you have to build on.”

Doyle said he hopes this message leads to action.

“I would bet 99.4 percent of the United States would agree with everything that (President Obama) said today,” Doyle said. “We ought to just really get moving on this.”

In March, 2013, Gov. Scott Walker signed into law a worker training bill called Wisconsin Fast Forward that passed through the Wisconsin State Legislature with overwhelming bipartisan support. The program is set to kick into gear this year.

Dan Shafer is a reporter at BizTimes.

Sign up for BizTimes Daily Alerts

Stay up-to-date on the people, companies and issues that impact business in Milwaukee and Southeast Wisconsin

Dan Shafer, former BizTimes Milwaukee reporter.

No posts to display