Let’s Take a Deeper Look at Wisconsin’s Worker “Shortage”

Author: Susan Stanton . Date: September 22, 2017

When Scott Walker ran for Governor of Wisconsin, one of his favorite slogans was “Wisconsin is open for business.” To access Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) funding, Wisconsin developed a state plan detailing it’s needs, challenges and prospects around employment. The plan highlights an aging workforce, historically low unemployment and a skills gap as key issues for Wisconsin. Recently, the Wisconsin State Journal (WSJ), the state capital’s local newspaper, reported that Wisconsin is on the brink of crisis as it grapples with a growing worker shortage. The article explains that because of low unemployment, an aging workforce and a skills gap, “There just aren’t enough people in Wisconsin” to fill the jobs in the state. The complexities of employment and workforce development require critical analysis and creative problem solving; both the state plan and the reporting on these issues would benefit from looking more deeply at some additional employment challenges in the state.

Just like the state plan, the WSJ article omits any racial analysis. Although, Wisconsin touts an overall unemployment rate of 4.1% which is lower than the national average, the unemployment rate for African American or Black residents of Wisconsin is 10.6% which is higher than the national average and nearly three times the unemployment rate for Whites in the state which is 3.8%. Looking at data for Milwaukee County alone, the most populated county in the state and home to the largest number of residents who are African American or Black, highlights more issues related to unemployment in Wisconsin. Milwaukee County’s unemployment rate for residents who are African American or Black is 12.6%, more than three times the rate of unemployment among Whites which is 3.8%. Unemployment among Latinos in Milwaukee County is 6.8%, nearly double the rate for Whites. (Unemployment data was retrieved from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the US Census Bureau.) Discussions of unemployment and plans to fill vacancies in the state must incorporate some racial analyses that include not only numbers, but also a discussion of the realities of discrimination in hiring practices and discrimination in the workplace if they are to have any tangible effect on all Wisconsinites.

People that are seeking work are well-positioned to contribute to those discussions. In the WSJ article, perspectives about job vacancies and prospective workers are offered from “dozens of employers, economists, advocacy group experts and state political and economic development officials.” Ideas are shared about the challenges that some employers have finding good candidates, but the essential voices of unemployed people are missing. The article offers limited insights about what it is like for workers to find jobs today and how those jobs and related policies (e.g., the state’s new regulations for receiving unemployment benefits, child support policies and practices, low and abrupt cliffs before losing public benefits) do and don’t allow workers, many of whom are parents, to support themselves and their families. At the Center for Family Policy and Practice, we regularly conduct focus groups with mothers and fathers to discuss issues related to economic security. In addition to issues noted in the article, like low wages and the realities of the child support system, we also hear about other challenges and complexities that some mothers and fathers face. Sometimes jobs have inconsistent hours or hours that aren’t amenable to parenting or single parenting. Sometimes schedules are set with little notice for the employee. Sometimes employees are struggling with low wages, no insurance benefits and a myriad of transportation issues (e.g., extremely long bus rides, bus schedules that do not match shift hours, or jobs that require a car). This “geographical gap” between where jobs are and where people live is amplified by a “transportation gap” in which workers don’t have access to reliable transportation to and from work. When those workers are parents, additional complexities can arise. If these worker-parents are a few minutes late to pick up their children from childcare, they sometimes receive significant financial penalties from child care providers. Employees often face multiple such issues, which minimize the appeal of many $8, $11 and even $15/hour positions. And then, as the article notes, working parents who utilize Medicaid must be mindful of either having a job that offers strong wages and health insurance or not making “too much money” that they then lose health insurance and other public benefits for themselves and sometimes their children. These are examples of just some of the issues prospective workers might face that affect their employment decisions. If Wisconsin wants to grow its economy for all groups of people in the state, it must recognize that there are many adults in Wisconsin (many of whom are people of color and more specifically, people who are Black and live in Milwaukee) in need of employment, and begin to address the challenges that they face as well.

The article also suggests that the “worth” of a human being who is unemployed is in question. Some employers are choosing to offer (and may require) employees to take courses about managing relationships, buying insurance, balancing a checkbook, and saving for retirement. (This for a position that starts at $13/per hour, which the employer acknowledges is not a living wage.) This raises all sorts of questions about what roles employers can and should play in the lives of their employees. In addition to a focus on wages and benefits, employers may want to consider the ways in which the work environment is structured to respect human beings and allow them to thrive at work.

During the coming months, the Center for Family Policy and Practice will continue to disseminate information about economic security challenges faced by mothers and fathers in Louisiana, Georgia, Mississippi and Wisconsin. Many of these parents have very low incomes and are African American. The stories of these parents offer insights into structural changes that federal and state governments can make, but also point to specific policies and practices that employers and co-workers might consider if they are to attract and retain workers from every region and segment of the state’s population.