Milwaukee Biz Blog: A New Year’s resolution to fight inequality

Tim Sheehy
Tim Sheehy

It should come as no surprise to anyone in our community – at this time of year or any other – that there are shocking gaps of disparity in metro Milwaukee: economic, educational, racial and geographic. These inequalities are neither newly-discovered, nor are they ignored, with many resources and organizations dedicated to changing this reality.

Yet, exist they do:

  • 84,000 households in the City of Milwaukee live in poverty with incomes below $25,000. That is 169,000 of the city’s 583,000 residents, or 29%.
  • Your chances of living in poverty with just a high school degree or no high school degree in Milwaukee are 6 in 10. Only 16% of all third-graders in the city are reading at grade level.
  • Metro Milwaukee ranks near the bottom of its peer metro areas for minorities employed as officials and managers at only 4.7%. We also rank near the bottom of our peer group for the number of minority businesses with employees per capita of minority population.
  • The city of Milwaukee has more than twice the poverty of its surrounding metro area, and that metro area has 3 times the affluence based the number of households with incomes above $100,000.

Our vision is a metro Milwaukee that is globally competitive, fueled by high-value, high wage jobs, which support a vibrant quality of life. If we are to effectively chase this goal, then we need to champion an agenda that delivers quality education, creates opportunity, and supports a competitive business climate.

It is in the pursuit of this agenda that we encounter a clash of perspectives over how best to close these gaps and which policies would be most effective. Two recent events brought this clash into perspective.

At UWM, I participated in panel discussion with a university professor, labor leader and two state legislators, all prominent voices in their respective areas. The forum highlighted what they viewed as the causes of inequality. In summary, they believed CEOs are paid too much as a multiple of what the average wage is; the skills gap is really a wage gap (pay more and the job seekers will be there); too many employers discriminate in their hiring practices; and unions need more bargaining power.

The previous morning I had participated in a listening session with a group of employers, mostly manufacturers, and here in summary were their laments:

  • A lack of qualified applicants.
  • A mismatch between candidates’ educational attainment and their needs.
  • Too few candidates that can pass the drug screens.
  • One major employer said he has 68% turnover for new hires, and as few as 1 in 10 job applicants are qualified for the positions.

These contrasting perceptions drive our views of what’s causing inequalities in our community. So, what actions will help close these gaps?

In future issues of this newsletter and other communications, we will lay out specific proposals and invite feedback as we move forward to support our members by improving the region’s business climate.

As we close out 2015, MMAC will release its Blueprint for Economic Prosperity, providing a detailed review of both our progress and future agenda. From our viewpoint, business has a role to play in helping address Milwaukee’s inequalities because it is good for business – call it enlightened self-interest. If we are not effective in preparing students and diversifying our workforce, inequalities will grow, continuing to challenge metro Milwaukee’s prosperity.

We should never stop trying to level the playing field by ensuring everyone has access to education and opportunity to reach their fullest potential. As Vince Lombardi noted, we will chase perfection, and not likely catch it, but in its pursuit we just might catch greatness.

Our best to you for the holidays and the coming new year. My staff and I are committed to serving our members by pursuing the perfection of Metro Milwaukee as a place to invest capital and create jobs.

Tim Sheehy is the president of the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce.

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