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Public-Private Supporters Target Workforce Gaps

Many impoverished Milwaukee families face hurdles that limit the opportunity for gainful employment, from a lack of in-demand skills to needing a driver’s license. The Helen Bader Foundation is working with the Milwaukee Area Workforce Funding Alliance (WFA), a collaboration of public and private entities that support workforce programs, to address some of the systemic gaps.

The WFA was formed in 2008 to connect funding sources for employment-related programs, including foundations and corporate donors, with public entities, such as the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District and the Milwaukee Area Workforce Investment Board. WFA’s members identify common poverty-fighting strategies among the organizations, and maximize their combined support of those strategies. (The WFA is an affinity group of the Milwaukee-based Donors Forum of Wisconsin, which is coordinating the local distribution of funds.)

In 2011, their efforts received a major boost thanks to a federal grant to enhance links between nonprofits and employers in three industries with job growth potential: construction, health care, and manufacturing.

Through a competitive evaluation, the National Fund for Workforce Solutions identified the nation’s 10 most innovative workforce efforts. Thanks to the work of WFA, Milwaukee was awarded a two-year, $600,000 grant by the philanthropic organization. When combined with a local matching fund requirement, Milwaukee will have at least $1.2 million to aid local programs.

The local funds include $190,000 in Helen Bader Foundation funding to assist several groups, including Wisconsin Community Services and the Milwaukee Area Health Education Center. The Foundation’s support will strengthen construction industry training, provide efficiency retrofits for older city homes, and create a pathway for health care workers to advance their education in the field.

“We all see the deep impact of unemployment on families, particularly in Milwaukee’s core neighborhoods. This investment is a much-needed infusion of creativity and resources into a long-term solution to poverty,” said Gwen Dansby, vice president of Wisconsin community relations at JP Morgan Chase Foundation and WFA member. “As a corporate member of the community, we are excited by the potential this grant will have in how we address one of our most pressing needs.”

The office of Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett has also played an important role in working to close workforce gaps.

“No doubt, a stronger pool of ready, skilled employees makes Milwaukee a more attractive place to locate and grow a business,” Barrett said. “As we begin to see an economic recovery, this investment will lay the groundwork for spurring even greater employment growth.”

Statewide, the WFA is working with the Wisconsin Rapids-based Workforce Central Funders Collaborative. The coalition, which works in the rural communities of south Wood County, received a separate $400,000 Social Innovation Fund grant. The two regions are sharing their progress on implementing their strategies in an effort to inspire other Wisconsin communities to reevaluate their own approaches to unemployment challenges.

Beyond the National Fund collaboration, the WFA and Workforce Central have also initiated research on how low-income adults access the worker support services provided by the State of Wisconsin. For assistance with childcare, food, and other supports, the Internet is often the first step for potential clients. Unfortunately, that can be a problem for those with low literacy or limited technology access. As part of the study’s recommendations, the partners are looking at ways of assisting users who face those barriers.

“The public-private aspect is what makes this model so innovative,” said Gil Llanas, WFA chair. “In Milwaukee and Wood Counties, we see a group of stakeholders that are investing in a model that draws on employers needs, taps into their industry knowledge, and develops strong training and supports for unemployed individuals.”