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Milwaukee’s Digital Workforce Program Continues Its Evolution

Officials revamped workforce efforts by implementing new virtual training models, creating digital literacy programs and designing a data-centered platform to connect users with job opportunities based on work history and skill sets.

In 2020 and 2021, dire effects from the COVID-19 pandemic completely shifted accessibility pathways to train individuals and families in person for high-demand industries. As most companies turned to remote or hybrid work, members of Employ Milwaukee, Milwaukee County's workforce development board, knew they would have to reshape their approach to offer the workforce resources that many families needed at a critical time.

Since its formation, Employ Milwaukee's dual mission has been to provide job seekers and employers with training resources to help individuals, families and the regional economy grow and thrive — focusing on high-demand industries and IT-driven job opportunities.

The workforce development board has helped connect numerous job seekers with quality career opportunities, and employers locate the talent they need to be successful. Yet, before 2020, many of these opportunities depended solely on in-person resources and events, which took a hit when the COVID-19 virus caused the workforce to become heavily dependent on digital resources.

"In an effort to combat barriers to accessibility, the mayor’s office turned to the nonprofit FUSE Corps. to help bring a dedicated professional with a background in digital equity advocacy to work with the mayor and realign Employ Milwaukee’s service model, creating resources that fit an emerging virtual world," Chytania Brown, CEO of Employ Milwaukee, told Government Technology. "During the pandemic, American Job Centers and training programs ground to a halt, but our FUSE fellow helped us procure, plan and implement a virtual service delivery platform to remove barriers to training and workforce events that were previously held in person."

In 2021, Employ Milwaukee expanded its virtual service platform to include a Digital Literacy Lab in partnership with the national nonprofit EveryoneOn and the Kohl's Corporation. The digital training lab ensures job seekers have the necessary IT skills and devices to access virtual services through an eight-week online course. Participants learn how to operate a computer, access the Internet, use Microsoft applications and other critical digital literacy skills. The organization also provides free computers to participants and assists those who might not be able to afford broadband Internet services.

"As a member of the Milwaukee community and a workforce developer, I believe it is crucial to upskill workers from underserved communities so that they can have the tools to acquire high-skilled and high-paying jobs because every person and every worker deserves a fair shot at achieving economic stability and success," Brown said. "Although workforce development is not the sole answer to inequities or disparities in the labor market, workforce training and education are crucial tactics in addressing employment, income and wealth disparities that preclude many from economic security."

One Digital Literacy Lab participant, a 69-year-old Milwaukee resident named Kim, completed the eight-week course after hearing about the virtual program through her daughter, who works for Employ Milwaukee. Kim explained that she initially joined the program because she faced computer literacy challenges and wanted independence when using technology.

"The instructors were patient with us, telling us not to give up and to continue building our skills and learning new things," Kim shared. "My hope is that the program continues and an advanced version is created for young people without the resources to learn more about technology in schools."

The organization has already taken steps to reach students at the postsecondary level through its Fresh Coast Tech Up program — a virtual 16-week accelerated training for aspiring IT service technicians. Graduates receive a certified pre-apprenticeship designation and college credit, placing them on the road to gaining additional technical diplomas and degrees following an IT career pathway.

"Fresh Coast Tech Up originated from a U.S. Department of Labor grant in 2016 that was so successful, we found sustainable funding sources after the grant period ended to continue the program," Brown said. "Our employer partners at the MKE Tech Hub and Milwaukee Area Technical College were key to the success of the virtual training resource."

Although the Fresh Coast Tech Up program is geared toward postsecondary students, Employ Milwaukee’s programming serves a broad spectrum of populations, including youth as young as 10 years old.

"Through our K–12 school youth programs, we provide occupational skills training, paid work experiences and supportive services to ensure youth have the resources to pursue their interests in the STEM field, essentially building a bridge between industry leaders and students through apprenticeship opportunities in IT, advanced manufacturing and health care," Brown added.

Brown believes the ideas and methods to assure the city maintains a viable, highly skilled workforce are present, but concedes that local and state support is needed for workforce programs to continue an upward trajectory.

"We need to ensure these workforce programs are funded and supported by both the U.S. Department of Education and the U.S. Department of Labor, as well as any other federal, state and local stakeholders," she said.

State officials in Wisconsin are making a concerted effort to continue workforce modernization efforts on a larger scale. The Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development (DWD) announced last year that it would be launching a new virtual workforce platform to personalize job searches while offering career coaching and hiring solutions through a partnership with a tech-for-social-impact nonprofit called Research Improving People's Lives (RIPL).

The virtual platform will use past wage data to recommend job opportunities and career transitions to users based on their work history, skill set and goals.

"This technology promises to help job seekers elevate their career potential while making the hiring process timelier and more effective for employers," said DWD Secretary-designee Amy Pechacek in a press release last year. "It will allow DWD to go above and beyond our current career services by offering individual solutions in an accessible, equitable and very user-friendly way. Like all of our mission-driven DWD Job Center services, the service is free and available online or in person, where our staff is waiting to help."

The project will build on the DWD's existing job search and employer-matching tools, including the Job Center of Wisconsin, Skill Explorer and Career Pathways.
Ashley Silver is a staff writer for Government Technology. She holds an undergraduate degree in journalism from the University of Montevallo and a graduate degree in public relations from Kent State University. Silver is also a published author with a wide range of experience in editing, communications and public relations.