The Business of Diversity

Last updated on May 13th, 2019 at 02:40 pm

Milwaukee has two very different labor problems. On one hand, employers in the city, including manufacturers, insurance companies, accounting firms, retail stores and hospitals, say they need more skilled workers. On the other hand, a large percentage of African-American men in the city are unemployed or out of the workforce and do notpossess many of the skills that employers need.

Milwaukee has two very different labor problems. On one hand, employers in the city, including manufacturers, insurance companies, accounting firms, retail stores and hospitals, say they need more skilled workers. On the other hand, a large percentage of African-American men in the city are unemployed or out of the workforce and do not possess many of the skills that employers need.

The latest survey by The Paranet Group, a network of manufacturing executives in southeastern Wisconsin, says the greatest challenge its members face is finding and retaining good employees.

That labor shortage is going to get worse before it gets better. The U.S. Bureau of Labor is anticipating a worker shortage of up to 10 million people by 2010, as baby boomers retire and the next generation is not large enough or experienced enough to replace them.

The answer to solving the labor shortage AND the inner city unemployment problem is to connect the people who need jobs with the companies that need competent employees. Of course, recruiting and training those employees has been historically difficult. But the labor shortage means area businesses will need to become more diverse to find the workers they need to survive.

"There is a deep and profound misunderstanding of diversity in this community," said Troy Shaw, the owner of West Allis-based TDS Management Group Inc. and the producer and host of the, "Focus on Diversity with Troy Shaw" television program. "We have to try harder and it needs to be done in a different way."

However, some progress on that front is being made, as individual companies and industries have begun to reach out to recruit a diverse workforce (see accompanying stories).

"Between the policy makers and employers, there’s a convergence of efforts to create jobs in the central city," said Cory Nettles, a partner in corporate services and government relations with the Milwaukee law firm of Quarles & Brady, LLP. "This is a different strategy now (than 20 years ago). I spend a lot of time talking about market-driven approaches to job creation. (Employers are) looking at the value of the central city as an asset, not as a liability. Instead of companies fleeing to go to green field space, they’re now returning to brownfield space."

As the labor shortage becomes more severe, southeastern Wisconsin manufacturers will need to hire a more diverse workforce out of necessity, not out of a social conscience.

The challenge will be to connect with minorities in the inner city. In 2000, 55 percent of the male residents of the area near North 27th Street and West North Avenue were not employed, according to a study by the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Center for Economic Development. In the North Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive area, about 42 percent of the male population was not employed, the study says. Both areas have almost entirely African-American populations.

Overall, about 18 percent of the African-American population in the city of Milwaukee was unemployed in 2005, according to the American Community Survey by the U.S. Census Bureau.

The large number of unemployed residents in Milwaukee could

provide the solution to the region’s labor shortage.

"I have often referred to this as ships passing in the night," said Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett. "I was at a Saturday morning community meeting with more than 100 people in the central city. The big issue was the lack of employment opportunities. I left there and went to visit a company in the northwestern part of the city, who lamented on the fact that they couldn’t find workers."

The ultimate solution will take a joint effort by businesses, community organizations and the government, employment advocates agree.

"This population we’re trying to bring back to work is too dispersed to serve with one solution," Nettles said. "The population will take lots of different organizations using similar strategies and tools to touch whomever, wherever they can."

Frank Cumberbatch, a former senior assistant to Barrett for business, economic development, real estate and job-related issues, who is now running a private consulting firm, agrees.

"To solve the problem, it takes an in-depth analysis of why the worker is caught up, why there is this invisible social barrier and why they can’t get across this invisible street to get a family-supporting job," Cumberbatch said. "It’s much more complicated than just growing industry and getting more jobs (in the city). It will take all we have to get past this. Everybody has got to be involved if this is going to work. Collectively, we can make a dent."

Some Milwaukee area employers, including Bucyrus International Inc., Tramont Corp., Production Stamping Corp., Advanced Die Casting Co., Compo Steel Products Inc., Super Steel Corp. and Gilbane Building Co., have found ways to hire unskilled but motivated minority workers, train them and gradually promote those workers to higher skilled, higher paying, family-supporting jobs.

Sean McGowan, president of Tramont Corp., 3701 N. Humboldt Blvd., Milwaukee, hires workers from the African-American community with little or no work history on a regular basis. Many of those workers do not walk in with the skills he needs.

"We’re in an industrial revolution in Milwaukee," he said. "I need 30 welders today. And I have to create them. I’ll take them off the street, put them in assembly then put them in paint. Then they can learn to weld."

Tramont Corp. manufactures steel components for diesel-fueled vehicles. The company has about 300 employees in two facilities, the 175,000-square-foot Humboldt Boulevard facility and about 66,000 square feet in the Chase Commerce Center, 3073 S. Chase Ave., Milwaukee.

Palermo Villa Inc., which recently opened a new, 135,000-square-foot facility in Milwaukee’s Menomonee Valley, hires most of its workers from the surrounding neighborhood, which is the home of many Hispanic and African-American people, said Sue Gibb, the company’s vice president of administration.

Palermo Villa works with a temporary employment agency that screens and pre-trains some of its unskilled workers.

"They teach (workers) about the rules and do some of the required training before they walk in the door," Gibb said. "It’s a wonderful model. Once the group comes in, we keep them on the temp payroll for 90 days. This is the training period. Usually, within the first 90 days is when we have turnover."

Palermo pays its temporary workers about $7 per hour. Once they’re permanent, the average wage in Palermo’s production facility is about $12 per hour, Gibb said.

The temporary workers need to show a commitment to gain permanent employment, said Jessica Bare Ollenburg, president and chief executive officer of Human Resources Services Inc., a staffing firm with Milwaukee and Waukesha offices.

"Employers are investing a great deal into training," she said. "What they ask for in return is a sincere and long-standing commitment to do that job. The employer has the responsibility to ensure that the applicant’s interest isn’t going to waiver."

Not all employers are going it alone to find minority workers to fill job openings. Many partner with nonprofit agencies such as United Migrant Opportunity Services (UMOS), the Private Industry Council of Milwaukee County (PIC), Riverworks Development Corp. and Word of Hope Ministries Inc.

Those agencies have their own job training and placement services. Each creates customized training programs with employers with the understanding that people trained through the program will be hired at the company. The employer usually pays half of the training costs, said Dave Wilson, executive vice president of the PIC.

"There are companies that get it, the fact that they need to grow their own," Wilson said. "The selection (of employees) may be slim out there, but the resources are there to develop the workforce for us."

The PIC, in partnership with Milwaukee Area Technical College, is now working to create a new skilled worker training program, designed to help train unemployed or under-employed workers transitioning to manufacturing jobs. A similar program for the building trades industry, Big Step, is already producing results, Wilson said.

The new manufacturing program, which will launch in early January, 2007, will teach math and reading skills, the ability to work in a team environment and creative thinking relative to the workforce, Wilson said. The 16-week program will have eight weeks of classroom and eight weeks of on-the-job training.

PIC officials and MATC staff are talking with employers that could be used as job training sites. On-the-job training will pay students a wage, which is yet to be determined.

"We’re looking at partnerships with MATC and businesses to leverage the training costs," Wilson said. "We want to get entry-level workers into the pipeline. Our intent is to get people employed, and to do so through partnerships is the most successful way."

Convicted felons face some of the most daunting challenges when attempting to enter the work force. The Prisoner Re-Entry Initiative (PRI), run through Word of Hope Ministries Inc., 2677 N. 40th St., is working to give convicted felons ages 18 and older who have been released from prison in the last six months both a set of soft skills to bring to job interviews and specific tools to help them keep jobs.

"The state of Wisconsin has the highest incarceration rate of black men (in the country)," said the Rev. Leondis Fuller, director of mentoring and training with Word of Hope Ministries. "There are 6,000 individuals coming back into the community every year, and the largest percentage of them is coming to Milwaukee."

The PRI program was started in March. To date, the program has enrolled 101 former inmates through its program, 56 of whom are currently employed.

The PRI is a faith-based initiative funded by the U.S. Department of Labor.

Businesses that make the extra effort to find minority workers who are eager to find a job will benefit by gaining loyal employees, said Vanessa White, manager of job training and the placement program at Riverworks, a Milwaukee-based nonprofit organization dedicated to job training and placement, real estate marketing and development and technical assistance to small industrial firms.

"People, I believe, will have a loyalty for what you’ve put into them, and you’ll get good ROI (return on investment)," White said. "If I’ve knocked on 25 doors before I went to this company, and they’ve got good benefits and give me no trouble, and I get trained at MATC and now my cousin can start working here, why would I leave? If you’ve trusted me when no one else would, and you put money into me and said I had value, why would I leave?"

Many employers, including Glendale-based Manpower Inc., work with nonprofit agencies to help diversify their workforce.

Martha Artiles, Manpower’s chief diversity officer, said the company has partnered and formed working relationships with the local branches of the NAACP, the Urban League, the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and other agencies that represent constituencies the company wants to reach, Artiles said.

Through its relationship with the NAACP, Manpower has donated more than 20 computers, so residents can learn computer skills for free. Manpower’s employees have trained the NAACP’s trainers to use Manpower software, designed to build "soft skills" in potential workers.

"That’s one outlet, if a candidate comes in and they’re willing and able to work and if he or she doesn’t have a skill, to help them get skills," said Melanie Cosgrove Holmes, vice president of

corporate affairs, North America for Manpower.

When Manpower opens its new corporate headquarters in downtown Milwaukee next year, it will unveil a new job training program for the surrounding neighborhood, Holmes said.

The new Manpower job training program, named Project Accelerate, will help train and place city residents in jobs, Holmes said.

"This is about partnerships and collaboration. We can’t do it by ourselves. We can offer our leadership to bring groups together and get things accomplished," Holmes said.

The City of Milwaukee also is getting directly involved in helping under-skilled and under-employed or unemployed workers connect to better jobs.

The city will close on the purchase of a 23-acre site later this month, where it will build a $28 million federally funded Job Corps Center. The site, at 60th Street and Green Tree Road, is expected to be open by October 2008.

The facility will be one of 122 centers open across the country, where students can receive hands-on instruction in industries ranging from information technology, health care and emergency responders to security and more.

The city also is helping to connect pools of unemployed residents with companies that need workers.

Barrett recently met with officials from Bucyrus, which currently needs 100 welders in its Milwaukee mining machinery-building plant. The company hasn’t been able to find experienced enough workers, because it needs welders with a specific skill set.

The city is collaborating with MATC and Bucyrus to create a new welding program to teach the skills the company needs its workers to have.

The worsening labor shortage may be forcing Milwaukee area employers to adopt workplace diversity as a business strategy essential for their survival.

"I’ve been in it for 18 years," Artiles said. "It’s finally getting to the point that it’s about business. It’s not just touchy-feely. The shift in demographics is starting to cause employers to look differently at how they hire. This is not a luxury, it’s a necessity to be sure they position themselves (for growth)."

However, Cumberbatch and others involved in trying to resolve Milwaukee’s labor problems know they have a long way to go.

"This is not enough. There can never be enough," Cumberbatch said. "Until every Milwaukeean has a job to go to, there can never be enough. We need more leadership. That’s critical here – passionate people who live this stuff every day. This is a roll-up-your-sleeves-and-get-involved situation."

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