U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen and WRTP/BIG STEP CEO Lindsay Plumber cut a ceremonial ribbon to celebrate a $1.5 million federal grant to renovate and expand the organization’s facility on Milwaukee’s Northwest Side on Friday, Jan. 26. (Erik Gunn | Wisconsin Examiner)
U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen swept into Milwaukee at the end of last week with two tasks on her to-do list.
One was to formally announce a federal grant to a Milwaukee-based agency that helps young people get a jump-start to jobs that demand skill, pay well and don’t require a college degree.
The other was to keep the attention of the press and the public on President Joe Biden’s economic policies that emphasize strengthening the middle class and expanding opportunity where opportunity has been hard to find.
The grant that Yellen announced illustrated that larger agenda. The Wisconsin Regional Training Partnership/BIG STEP includes pre-employment training for industrial workers and tutoring for people who want to join a skilled-trades apprenticeship program. The federal $1.5 million grant announced Friday will go toward renovation and expansion of the agency’s center on Milwaukee’s near Northwest Side.
“The President and I believe that our country’s growth isn’t meaningful if the gains are not widely shared, and a strong American middle class is key to building a stronger economy,” Yellen said in her remarks after a ribbon-cutting ceremony to celebrate the grant.
Where industrialization once made it possible for three out of four people in cities like Milwaukee to move into the workforce and secure middle-class lives with no more than a high school diploma, she observed, in recent decades the benefits of economic growth have increasingly been concentrated on the coasts and benefited wealthier communities.
Today, two-thirds of all jobs require education beyond high school, while more than half of Americans over 25 don’t have college degrees. For them, “it has been hard to find pathways to the middle class,” Yellen said.
“President Biden knows how much having a good job can mean,” she said — the ability to support a family, to build a stable life and plan for the future instead of living day to day. “This means the opportunity to have a good job should be part of what it means to be an American today. And this should be true no matter where you live, and whether or not you have a college degree.”
Preparing prospective apprentices
Before the announcement, Yellen, accompanied by Gov. Tony Evers, Milwaukee County Executive David Crowley and WRTP/BIG STEP President and CEO Lindsay Blumer, toured part of the center’s workshop where students have been learning carpentry skills and on-the-job safety practices.
Their tour guide was WRTP construction instructor Willie D. Ellis, who pointed out student projects and leaned in to explain the work as Yellen listened intently.
They paused by a mechanical scissors lift that raises construction workers so they can complete tasks several stories above the ground. Ellis and a couple of students demonstrated the safety harnesses that protect workers riding the lift from a potentially fatal fall from the machine.
The tour ended at a painted wooden bench that students had made, where Yellen, Evers and Crowley signed their names with magic markers.
After Yellen and others in the party went off to a closed-door round table discussion with students and local employers, Ellis, a retired heavy equipment operator and member of the Operating Engineers union, explained the work that goes on at WRTP/BIG STEP.
“We get people ready for apprenticeships,” Ellis said in an interview — including preparing young people who never got a diploma to finish their high school education, which Wisconsin law requires to join a licensed apprenticeship program. Tutors also help students with particular skills such as mathematics that might be essential in certain trades.
“The other thing we do is mentoring, and we look at getting people into careers,” Ellis said. “That’s one of the most important things that WRTP/BIG STEP does.”
In one corner of the warehouse-like indoor workshop area is a house that was built over the course of a few years, giving students experience in framing carpentry, drywall installation and other tasks. Students also get beginning instruction on safely using a forklift and equipment such as the scissors lift.
“One of the most important things when it comes to height is, don’t look down — look out,” Ellis said. Looking down, even just briefly, “you really realize how high up you are in the air.” Keeping your eye on the work helps curb the anxiety.
In an era where wood shop and metal shop are no longer standard high school classes, WRTP offers similar learning opportunities and more.
“We’re not telling anybody that you don’t need an education,” Ellis said. “You need an education, because of the new computerized equipment and so forth. But [some people] don’t want to work inside.”
The nation still needs infrastructure, he said, and skilled people to do the work in building and maintaining it — like the project to rebuild the Blatnik bridge connecting Northwest Wisconsin and Northeast Minnesota that Biden announced last week in Superior.
“Infrastructure is something that needs to be done,” Ellis said. “We need people here in the United States to learn how to build things, build bridges and pour concrete — all of those different things. You can’t ship that [work] overseas.”
Ellis began his career as an operating engineer in 1970.
“But my first 10 years on the job, I did not see nobody who looked like me,” he said. “I want to see more and more young people involved and more young people get that trade” — young men, and young women, he added, who could be 30% or more of the construction workforce in the near future.
Jobs growth, higher wages, workforce policy and unions
In her remarks, Yellen highlighted the Biden administration’s programs that she said have helped the U.S. through a robust recovery in the first three years of his term after the COVID-19 pandemic initially sent the country into a sharp, although brief, recession.
The 2.7 million jobs that the U.S. gained in 2023 alone were “more jobs than during any year of the prior administration,” Yellen said, while unemployment nationally has remained below 4%. Wages have increased, even after adjusting for inflation, she said, and the percentage of Americans who are actively working or seeking work has increased in the same period.
“We’re helping create and strengthen pathways to good jobs for Americans across the country,” Yellen said. She credited the 2021 American Rescue Plan with providing needed support to workers and businesses alike, with state and local aid that provided recovery funds to cities and states and provisions that emphasized workforce development programs — including the WRTP/BIG STEP renovation grant.
She described the administration’s funding priorities as addressing issues such as child care or help for entry-level workers from backgrounds who have historically been left out and who may need mentoring and coaching to encourage them toward success.
“What’s important is not just how much you spend on workforce development, but how it’s done,” Yellen said.
Yellen emphasized the Biden administration’s strong support of unions and noted the close relationship between WRTP/BIGSTEP and the union-linked apprenticeship programs that it helps prepare people for. She also highlighted her own department’s 2023 report on the benefits that unions bring to workers and to the economy as a whole.
“Unions can drive changes across whole industries, such as heightened workplace safety norms,” she said. “Through encouraging fairer wage practices, unions are also part of creating a fairer economy.”
Yellen called the Biden administration’s three other signature pieces of legislation “a historic trifecta” — the 2021 Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, the 2022 CHIPS and Science Act and the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act.
“We’re building toward a different country in which roads, bridges, and ports are better, enabling goods to reach us faster and at lower cost,” she said. “In which strengthened manufacturing at home makes our country more secure. In which cutting-edge clean energy technologies bring down costs for American families and propel us toward our climate goals.”
Speaking to reporters afterward, Yellen said she believes that word of the economy’s strength has begun to get through to the public, despite perceptions of public gloom. Consumer confidence and optimism have risen “quite sharply over the last couple of months,” she said.
Yellen acknowledged that the inflation that hounded the economy through 2022 and early 2023 has brought “a lot of suffering and stress” for consumers, increasing the costs of necessities including food, housing and utilities.
Nevertheless, she pointed to recent indications that prices have largely stabilized while real incomes continue to rise. “Workers and households are getting ahead,” Yellen said, “and I have every expectation that will continue.”
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