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With Foxconn needing thousands of people to construct a mega-manufacturing facility in Mount Pleasant, Racine Mayor Cory Mason sees an opportunity to put more of his residents to work.

But the capacity to respond to those training needs is limited and Mason wants to see that change. His plan: Bring back the Labor Development Committee, a committee he was on for the Interstate 94 building project.

“We sat down with the contractors, looked at how we can bring people together to work on diversity in their workplace and train people for those jobs,” he said. “We met every month and talked about how to bring groups like the First Choice Pre-Apprenticeship Program together. I’d like to bring that back and partner more groups like that and one called WRTP-Big Step out of Milwaukee.”

He also wants to emulate the plan Milwaukee had when the Northwestern Mutual Life building was constructed. That project required that 40 percent of the workers be from Milwaukee. The contractors partnered with a non-profit in Milwaukee called WRTP-Big Step, which trained the workers from the inner city of Milwaukee for some of those jobs.

Increased training capacity needed

Pre-apprenticeship and apprenticeship programs are sparse in Racine.

The First Choice Pre-apprenticeship program serves as a bridge for people looking to get into apprenticeship programs. But they only have a capacity of training 80 people per year. They also have trouble finding people that fit their minimum requirements, said Ola Baiyewu, executive director of the program.

The challenge: Finding people who have a high school diploma or a GED, have a driver’s license, are drug-free, and have reliable transportation. Baiyewu said he can help a person who doesn’t pass a drug test by getting them into counseling and holding them accountable for their actions. He can help a person get their driver’s license or gain access to reliable transportation with the bus.

What he doesn’t have is the capacity to get people a high school diploma. The city has 11,000 people of working age that don’t have their GED, and the County only has a capacity to help 100 people obtain their GED per year.

“I tell people that this is something you have to work towards,” Baiyewu said. “We’re helping the county by publicizing the program and encouraging people to enroll in getting their GED.”

This is a problem officials from the YWCA of Southeastern Wisconsin, Racine County, and Gateway Technical College are working on with the YWCA’s HSED 5.09 program.

Tradespeople wanted

For well over a decade there has been a shortage of people in the trades, said Kellie Zierk, current president of the Racine Kenosha Business Association.

Zierk also serves as the sales manager and does interior design at Carpetland USA in Racine. They will finish out the year with their highest sales in over 22 years. 

They need people too, but people don’t need to be an apprentice to lay carpet or tile. Most of that work can be learned on the job. The real need is finding people who want to do physical labor, she said.

“For years people have been told they have to go to college to earn a living, but the sad truth is that they don’t…. You can be a union operating engineer and make $70,000 a year,” she said. “There are ways to make a livable wage, you just have to want to do physical labor.”

Baiyewu and Mason both want to see the community step up its game so that it can respond to these labor needs. In the bill state Legislators passed in September for Foxconn, $5 million was earmarked to go to Gateway Technical College to expand the iMet Center and the County’s training program. Mason is working on collaborating with them to see how to scale up those programs.

“I can tell you there are discussions underway about how we can build the capacity to do this type of training,” Mason said. “We’re collaborating with Gateway Technical College and the County to look at how we train people so that they can earn higher wages.

“It’s going to take time, people and money,” he said. “That’s the short answer.”

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.