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Dear Racine,

You have given so much with your hands, your blood, you sweat and your tears as America’s machine shop. Work is no stranger to this City. We are the best at tinkering, creating, and innovating. We are a community that makes things happen. And in many ways, our work continues but not in the same magnitude it once did.

Our years have collectively been spent on molding metal into its desired and intended form. We have bored and hubbed our industrial dreams into reality, harnessed electricity, cranked out motors for a multitude of gadgets, healed people with medical devices, and cleaned up the dirtiest of America’s messes with our pastes, waxes, and cleaners.

And yet we have watched those assembly jobs leave our community over the past several decades. This Great Recession has tipped us over, emptied us out, and made us long for the day where we manufactured our dreams one gadget at a time. So now what?

We Still Manufacture

Manufacturing jobs still represent 18 percent of all Racine County’s jobs, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. But we need to broaden our thinking of what Racine County does for a living. Because even if manufacturing jobs should happen to miraculously appear, many City of Racine residents are not qualified to respond to that need given the changing skill set needed to do those manufacturing jobs. Why? We used to make 10,000 widgets with 10,000 people. Now it takes 10 people running 10 machines requiring more math and science skills that many of us in this county just don’t have.

Over 21 percent of population in the City of Racine is living in poverty, 9,000 residents 25 years and older living in the City of Racine don’t have high school diploma or GED, and the per capital income in the city was less than $21,000 in 2015, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

So even if we brought back those assembly jobs, chances are good that those who are unemployed won’t qualify for them. And that’s why we have what is called a skills gap. When I covered manufacturing for the Milwaukee Business Journal we would have round table discussions about this very topic and it has been a priority issue for the Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce for years.

With that said, the number of baby boomers set to retire over the next few years is staggering and Racine County’s overall population is expected to grow, but the number of people in the workforce is expected to decline, according to the Wisconsin Taxpayer Alliance. Those retirements will create a bigger demand for manufacturing jobs in Racine. And if we don’t up our game to prepare for replacing that workforce with educated workers, those companies will leave.

The Opportunity Ahead

It doesn’t mean we can’t learn these skills, but that takes a commitment many in this community have been unwilling to make — from companies unwilling to invest in training and education programs to people not showing up to work on time to governments not investing in transportation to parents not making sure their kids get to class and doing their homework. There’s a lot of blame to go around and we don’t have time to spend on the past.  

But what do we do in the meantime?

It stands to reason that Racine almost needs a bridge economy to keep us afloat while we up our education game to prepare for higher skilled manufacturing jobs, especially if we have that many people who don’t have a high school diploma.

Could tourism and an arena/hotel and events center be the answer? Maybe. Could it be a focus on IT or retail? Sure. It’s easy to say that Racine can’t afford pay for an arena or invest in its retail sector with Regency Mall given how much we’ve lost in Racine. Asking how we will fund these projects, however, is a reasonable assessment. What’s the future payout? Is there a way to fund the arena so that we minimize the property tax burden? What would that look like? And what have communities done to minimize that burden?

Better Questions Lead To Better Solutions

These are all questions that the community needs to ask. But will we be so bold as to have these discussions?

It’s easy to say no and pretend we’re not already paying for our inability to control our own destiny with our economy. We desperately want manufacturing jobs back in our lives. And I get that, but what are we also doing to prepare for that?
We need to understand what needs our city, county and region have for the job market. And this is why Racine County Eye is partnering with Racine County Workforce Solutions to offer their expertise for residents to use. I’m also hoping to engage Gateway Technical College, the University of Wisconsin-Parkside, and Carthage College to offer their insight into this issue.

My point is this… we can complain all we want about how Racine Unified is failing, how we don’t have thousands of jobs waiting for our children right out of high school or college, and how we hate paying for people on entitlement programs; if we don’t start understanding what the job market wants and see how we might fit into that job market, we will stay stuck as a community.

Our retailers won’t have goods to sell people, our unemployment rate will continue to be the highest in the state, our employers will continue to be frustrated with a lack of having a skilled workforce, and we will continue to be stuck pining for those old assembly jobs waiting for that next manufacturer to save us.

And I can assure you… those aren’t coming back.

So what’s our next move?


Denise Lockwood has an extensive background in traditional and non-traditional media. She has written for, the Milwaukee Business Journal, Milwaukee Magazine and the Kenosha News.