A Critical Investment in Wisconsin’s Workforce: A Guest Column by Department of Workforce Development Secretary Amy Pechacek

DWD Secretary Amy Pechacek

The last year has brought countless challenges and struggles for the people of Wisconsin—workers worried about finding work or being safe at work, employers who are anxious about the future of their businesses and how they will keep afloat, and entrepreneurs who had to halt their dreams, ideas, and innovations to pivot in this new workforce landscape.

Gov. Tony Evers recognizes that putting Wisconsin on the path to recovery takes bold investments in comprehensive training and education. That’s why his Badger Bounceback plan makes an immediate investment supporting businesses, individuals and organizations affected by the pandemic with $10 million in Wisconsin Fast Forward grant funding. The funds support business-led skills training programs, connecting new and incumbent workers with hands-on training opportunities that will allow them to advance within their current industry or explore completely new careers. His budget also includes money for Pandemic Recovery Grants and Healthcare Recruitment and Training. The funds would flow through Wisconsin’s Workforce Development Boards to help meet the regional needs that vary across the state’s eleven workforce areas.

A key part of our mission at DWD is supporting the next generation of Wisconsin’s workforce, whether it’s connecting young adults to training programs, degree programs through the technical college system, or engaging in apprenticeships. Fundamental to this goal is the budget’s investment in Youth Apprenticeship with a $250,000 increase in each year of the biennium. Youth Apprenticeship is a proven program that has served nearly 5,400 high school juniors and seniors during this school year alone and over 6,000 during the previous year. The budget also supports Wisconsin’s Registered Apprenticeship program by increasing funding for the Apprenticeship Completion Award Program. Investing more in these proven initiatives will better position more individuals to bounce back from the economic downturn we’ve experienced over the past year.

A main pillar of any bounce back from the last year is a strong investment in Wisconsin’s unemployment insurance (UI) benefit system. The emergence of COVID-19 created not only a historic public health crisis, but a workforce and economic crisis. Since March 15, 2020, DWD’s UI Division has paid out more than $6 billion to 641,000 people. This record volume of claims exposed the flaws of Wisconsin’s dated mainframe UI computer system and revealed the difficulties many people face to qualify for UI benefits due to the complex nature of the program. We owe it to the people of Wisconsin to be better positioned when faced with similar challenges in the future, which is why Governor Evers’ budget proposes $80 million to overhaul and modernize the state’s massive UI system.

The Governor’s Badger Bounceback budget also addresses disparities and supports workers throughout Wisconsin by making gradual and necessary increases to the state’s minimum wage, reinforcing employment protections and workers’ rights, expanding Wisconsin’s family and medical leave provisions, and ending discrimination by “banning the box” and including gender identity and expression as key discrimination protections. The budget further supports workers’ rights with $70,000 over two years to fund the development of a new online form people can use to file equal rights complaints.

Beyond expanding our existing programs, the 2021-2023 Biennial Budget bill supports Wisconsin’s recovery efforts through other innovative and critical initiatives, like our Wisconsin Worker Connection Pilot program. The budget provides about $10 million over the biennium to create customer-centric program that removes barriers to employment and connects Wisconsinites to employers that are ready-to-hire, as well as training and supportive services. The budget also creates a Wisconsin Work Opportunity Tax Credit to help increase the hiring of individuals with certain barriers to employment.

The road ahead will not be an easy one. While employment is beginning to rebound, about 140,500 fewer Wisconsinites have jobs when compared with February of 2020. The pandemic has structurally changed the nature of work across many industries, and matching individuals with the skills and training needed by our state’s employers in this new economy is vital. Governor Evers’ budget funds rapid and innovative solutions to address the critical issues facing our state. Whether through modernizing our antiquated Unemployment Insurance system, ensuring workers’ rights and protections, or advancing industries and supporting employers, we will help strengthen our state’s workforce and economy. And more importantly, after a year that has tested all of us, we will continue to build hope in Wisconsin’s future.