Gus Ramirez embarked on one of the most ambitious projects of his philanthropic career earlier this year when he pledged to make a $60 million investment in improving education in Milwaukee with the development of a new K-12 school on the city’s south side.
Concerned about the future workforce of his company, Waukesha-based HUSCO International Inc., and fed up with the performance of Milwaukee Public Schools, Ramirez made a bold proposal to play a more direct role in improving education in Milwaukee.
His proposed school, Augustine Prep, has garnered as much criticism from public school advocates, teachers’ unions and charter school competitors as it has support from those who understand his vision. Much of the criticism stems from competition among schools to draw students and, with them, public funds.
“I believe this is something God wants to happen and He’s given me enough nudges, opened up enough doors, created enough options for us to be successful that I think He’s had a hand in this process,” said Ramirez, who serves as executive chairman of HUSCO. “If I didn’t feel that, we wouldn’t be doing it.”
Ramirez, whose proposal will be heard by Milwaukee’s Board of Zoning Appeals this fall, is part of a growing number of southeastern Wisconsin business leaders who have decided to get off the sidelines and get directly involved in initiatives to improve the area’s education system and the talent pipeline who it provides for the future workforce.
To Ramirez and many of his corporate peers, the drive to take up a stronger role in education is a matter of ensuring the region can remain competitive in the global economy.
HUSCO International and other companies currently can hire employees from India and China who are, on average, better educated than their American counterparts, according to Ramirez.
Typically, companies have had an incentive to ground themselves in the United States, where the workforce capability has been superior, he said. But if that capability scale changes and overseas performance outshines that of the United States, businesses have more incentive to locate outside the country.
Businesses today need to be far more demanding in the push for better schools to retain their ability to compete globally, Ramirez said. While many businesspeople prefer to sidestep the politics of education, the cost of not confronting education system problems in the U.S. will place the country at a disadvantage relative to international competitors, he says.
“We will not be, as an economy and as a society, nearly as prosperous and as successful,” Ramirez said, adding that the business community must be “louder” and “unabashed” in demanding better results and holding politicians, school administrators and educators accountable for driving student performance.
Concerns surrounding education have worked their way to the top of the agenda of the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce and its Council of Small Business Executives. Building a talented workforce is a key component of the MMAC’s Blueprint for Economic Prosperity strategic plan for the region. A 2014-’15 report on that plan projected that from 2012 to 2020, the number of jobs available in metro Milwaukee will increase by 7 percent, while the overall population will grow by only 3 percent and the working age population will rise by just 0.8 percent.
The demographics are working against employers as waves of baby boomers retire, while the education system is not producing enough workforce-ready people for the future, said Jeff Clark, president and chief executive officer of Waukesha Metal Products and chair of COSBE’s Education Committee.
The severity of the workforce shortage differs among industries, with sectors like manufacturing facing some of the most significant challenges, according to Clark. However, skilled trades are beginning to rebound as people realize the kinds of viable career pathways available that do not require a four-year degree, he said.
To strengthen ties between the region’s business community and its education sector, COSBE’s Education Committee opened up many of its members’ doors to Milwaukee Public Schools seventh graders during the 2014-’15 school year. More than 900 MPS students from 33 classrooms toured one of 25 businesses to get a glimpse of behind-the-scenes operations and a better understanding of the breadth of career options they can pursue.
While exposing students to a variety of career prospects, the tours – known as “Be The Spark Business Education Tours” – also made students more aware of just how valuable they are to the business community, Clark said.
“We need to make sure these kids know they’re needed and wanted by businesses,” he said. “That is the key to all of this.”
All students are needed, he emphasized, to fill all employee levels across industries.
“This is about our regional economic vitality and sustainability,” Clark said. “We need a diverse, dedicated workforce to make this region successful and to make this country successful.”
During the upcoming school year, Be the Spark tours will expand to reach students from 57 classrooms. By the 2017-’18 school year, COSBE aims to incorporate all MPS seventh graders into the program – about 125 classrooms of students, according to Mary Steinbrecher, executive director of COSBE.
The goal centers on accelerating the Spark initiative to what MPS calls a “Learning Journey,” Steinbrecher said. Learning Journeys bring students outside the classroom and plant them in venues across the city where they can connect their day-to-day lessons to real-world experiences and take their learning to a more hands-on level.
While expanding company tours this fall, COSBE also plans to launch a related pilot program that will draw pre- and post-tour curriculum into the Spark initiative. Through the pilot program, made possible by a collaboration among COSBE, MPS and Junior Achievement Wisconsin, executives who lead Spark tours will visit MPS classrooms to talk to students more about their companies and the different positions they employ.
The pilot will unroll in 10 seventh grade classrooms across five MPS schools, according to Steinbrecher.
In a statement, MPS superintendent Darienne Driver applauded area businesses for their “increased level of commitment and engagement,” while also calling attention to opportunities for additional support.
“We are grateful for the opportunities this strong commitment is providing our students, who are tomorrow’s civic leaders,” Driver said. “Everyone in the community has a stake in the future of our students, and businesses are already playing key roles, including helping students explore careers, offering work-based learning opportunities, increasing volunteer efforts that help make our schools better places to learn, and tutoring to help improve student achievement. There continue to be meaningful opportunities for businesses to become involved. We have streamlined the process for partnership involvement and we look forward to working with everyone who is interested (in) helping prepare our young adults to be career and college-ready.”
From the sidelines to center stage
Much of today’s employer concern surrounding the capability of the future workforce began to surface right around the Great Recession, according to Clark and likeminded business executives taking action on the education front.
Mary Isbister, president of Mequon-based fabricator GenMet Corp., remembers businesses ramping up activity in education at the dawn of the Great Recession, particularly as companies’ longest term employees started to submit retirement notices. The overwhelming surge of retirees sounded an alarm for business executives to take a more calculated look at the future of their workforce and workforce needs, she said.
In the past few years, Stephanie Borowski, president of Butler-based nonprofit GPS Education Partners, said she has seen businesses transition from initially recognizing the need to better address talent development, to engaging in solutions, to fully participating in crafting those solutions.
“I think that businesses see the freight train that’s coming at them as far as the areas that they’re most vulnerable (in), which is their talent pipeline in many cases,” Borowski said.
GPS Education Partners, which immerses high school students in manufacturing settings under the guidance of business mentors, operates 15 education centers across Wisconsin with 115 employer partners, including Clark and Waukesha Metal Products.
While the retirement boom sweeping the baby boomer generation has certainly fueled employers’ concerns for their future workforce, the struggle of talent development has been elevated by a convergence of other factors.
Among them is an out-of-touch mentality on the part of employers, according to Clark.
Prior to the Great Recession, the country’s strong economy caused business executives to, at times, lose sight of how to train the future workforce and what fundamentally builds the country and the economy, he said.
“If you don’t make things, you can’t create wealth,” Clark said, underscoring the necessity of the manufacturing sector to the strength of the economy.
And with the majority of high school graduates being directed toward traditional models of post-secondary education, that sector’s pipeline has lagged, Clark said, adding that companies cannot grow without a workforce.
Business leaders must help students find their way and make them aware that there are lots of measures of success and different opportunities at their disposal, he said.
Isbister sees the rapid advancement of technology as another challenge to progress on the workforce development front. With the influence of technology across industries, Isbister is convinced that students will not reach workforce-ready status unless industry remains closely involved in the talent development arena.
Even the best education system will often struggle to produce students who can come into a business and immediately be effective, as technology across industries moves faster and becomes more specialized, she said.
There is no way an education system can stay out front of technological demands or afford to keep up with those demands, Isbister said, so industry must act as a partner, since industry stands at the forefront of technology.
Isbister insists that business executives must be proactive in seeking solutions for their workforce needs, rather than standing on the sidelines and complaining that they cannot find the candidates they need.
“It isn’t somebody else’s problem to fix,” she said. “It’s your problem to fix.”
In GenMet’s case, the manufacturer has donated funds to institutions that it has seen produce results and that want the company’s input. GenMet has also invested time in the next generation workforce, having paid its journeyman fabricators to spend an afternoon or evening with high school or technical college students to teach them specialized manufacturing skills and techniques.
Isbister’s own education commitments include sitting on MATC’s district board, through which she advises the technical college on its manufacturing curriculum and also draws on her expertise on the general job market and workforce needs. Much of her expertise stems from her time chairing Wisconsin’s Council on Workforce Investment.
To begin gaining more traction with next generation workforce development, businesses must be willing to partner with educational and governmental entities, make time for meetings and conversations held on workforce issues, and back workforce initiatives with both capital and time, Isbister said.
“You’ve got to have skin in the game, and by having skin in the game all of the other partners are working a lot harder to succeed,” she said.
Schools step up beside businesses
From a broader vantage point, Jeff Neubauer, president and owner of Racine-based environmental services company Kranz Inc., believes that many of the talent development struggles employers face have resulted from a systemic failure.
“I believe that our systems of developing the skills and exposing students and their families to opportunities have failed,” Neubauer said. “We have a system failure, a broad community-wide system failure. We do not have a failing generation.”
He stresses that the entire system needs to be transformed. The talent development system currently in place evolved to prepare students and a workforce in a different era. That system has not adapted to today’s business conditions, as companies vie in a global economy, operate in the midst of incredible information flow and aspire to higher standards of work, he said.
“The world is completely changed from when I was growing up here,” Neubauer said. “And we need to recognize and embrace the global realities rather than running from them or blaming each other for why we’re not where we want to be or need to be.”
Neubauer, who is a former state representative, also serves as executive director of “Higher Expectations,” a collective impact initiative that aims to create a fully capable and fully employed workforce in Racine County. That initiative fits hand in glove with “Raising Racine,” an effort driven by Racine Unified School District and district superintendent Lolli Haws in an area facing one of the highest unemployment levels in the state.
The City of Racine’s unemployment rate stood at 7.6 percent in June, according to the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development. By comparison, the state’s unemployment rate in June was 4.6 percent, according to the DWD, while the national unemployment rate in July was 5.3 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.
In addition to working to raise student achievement levels, “Raising Racine” is working to close achievement gaps for the district’s students of color and special education students, as well as construct a positive and safe environment for district schools.
The tactical plan behind the initiative is in the design phase, largely under the guidance of the Ford Foundation’s Next Generation Learning Program, which previously helped transform the education landscape in Nashville, Tenn.
Currently, RUSD is focused on revising district teaching and learning so they are relevant to what students study in “career academies” – career- and interest-based programs. Revamping the structure of school schedules and staff and partnering with businesses to establish internship opportunities for students and externships for teachers are also key focal points.
RUSD, in partnership with the Ford Foundation, hopes to launch specific career academies in fall 2016. The district is determined to ensure that every graduate has acquired college credit through college courses, has earned dual credits from a technical college, has received an International Baccalaureate Diploma, has received a special industry certification or has been accepted into the military, according to Haws.
Among the businesses eager to be hands on with “Raising Racine” are Brown Deer-based Badger Meter, Inc. and Racine-based Pioneer Products Inc., Haws said.
Jim Ladwig, president and CEO of Racine Area Manufacturers and Commerce, views area businesses as necessary partners to schools in Racine County.
“I think we need to be a strong partner and work with the education system to make sure that they’re aware of the skillsets necessary and be there to assist them in letting students know what opportunities there are upon graduation,” Ladwig said.
In Milwaukee, Cristo Rey Jesuit High School is opening this fall to serve 125 freshmen and connect them to real-world work experiences through its Corporate Work Study Program. After recruiting 23 area employers to be part of the program, the Catholic college preparatory high school, which belongs to a national network, will place students in a variety of office roles so students can gain early exposure to career paths.
The local business community played a significant role in Cristo Rey’s decision to establish a school in Milwaukee, according to Andrew Stith, who led a feasibility study for the school and is now school president.
“In Milwaukee, it was very apparent very quickly that the business community has a strong desire to get involved in really helping to shape the community that will both be their workforce and their customers in the future,” Stith said.
The first year of the Corporate Work Study Program will include involvement from employers such as Associated Bank, Aurora Health Care, Johnson Controls Inc., Marquette University, Wheaton Franciscan Healthcare and We Energies.
Room for improvement in the midst of progress
While Borowski, of GPS Education Partners, feels a sense of momentum in the collaboration between the business and education sectors, more ammo from the business community is needed, she said.
Employers, for the most part, are agreeing on the problem, based on her observations.
“Now what we all have to be part of is the solution,” she said, especially as the need to prepare the future workforce evolves to “a pain point.”
Isbister estimates that, on the whole, about 30 percent of the region’s businesses are actively engaged in workforce development solutions, about double the engagement rate of businesses three years ago, by her account.
Many businesses simply do not know where to start in getting involved, which is where organizations like GPS Education Partners come in, Borowski said.
Henry Tyson, superintendent of St. Marcus Lutheran School in Milwaukee, encourages businesses to motivate their employees to seek volunteer opportunities in area schools, as well as visit schools to see firsthand which education models are producing results.
Tyson said that pockets within the region’s business community have been vital to the missions of schools like St. Marcus, but that there is “absolutely” more businesses could be doing to improve educational outcomes for students.
“It’s really clear to me…the future success of business and the economy in Milwaukee depends upon our education system, and I would argue that the business community has not yet leaned heavily enough on the mayor (or) the (Milwaukee) Common Council to systemically fix our education system,” Tyson said.