With an eye to the post-pandemic economy, the Evers administration’s proposed state budget for the next two years is calling for new spending on worker training.
Part of that increase is a one-time $10 million infusion for retraining grants, according to Amy Pechacek, secretary-designee for the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development (DWD), who on Tuesday offered a primer on workforce-related parts of the budget in a virtual discussion with workforce development officials.
The grants would be issued under the DWD Fast Forward program, established in 2014 to provide training for people who are unemployed and underemployed, as well as currently employed workers. “It provides employer-led worker training that really helps upskill and round out the current skill sets of employees in various sorts of critical-need, high-demand areas,” Pechacek said.
Fast Forward usually offers about $4 million a year to businesses and groups that apply, she said. Gov. Tony Evers’ budget proposal calls for $10 million this time around to help employers train workers for jobs that pay family-supporting wages “and provide a pathway for them to continue advancing,” Pechacek said.
Projects that help people who have encountered “historical barriers” to good jobs get preference, along with projects that focus on economically depressed communities and people of color, people with disabilities, veterans and women.
An additional $1 million, divided over the two years of the biennium, would focus on training Wisconsin workers for so-called green jobs. “This could be anything from organic, sustainable farming to renewable energy to green engineering,” Pechacek said.
The DWD secretary-designee’s briefing was organized by the Wisconsin Workforce Development Association, an umbrella group for the state’s 11 regional workforce development boards that work with employers, technical colleges and other organizations to distribute federal worker training funds. More than 80 people representing those development boards were on the Zoom call for the briefing.
Evers’ budget includes $150 million to upgrade broadband internet service in areas of the state where it is inadequate, Pechacek said — a necessity in the increasingly digital workplace. Another $79 million would be set aside to upgrade the technology in the unemployment insurance division, which DWD officials have said was a significant factor in the backlog of unemployment claims that overwhelmed the department after job layoffs skyrocketed in the early weeks of the pandemic.
While there are other work-related provisions in the budget that Pechacek noted briefly — from a state minimum wage increase to expanding Wisconsin’s family and medical leave and employment discrimination laws — most of her talk focused on job training funds.
The budget includes $8 million in grants directly to workforce development boards for projects focused on pandemic relief, including retraining people whose jobs may have been eliminated permanently because of changes in consumer behavior as a result of COVID-19.
As an example, Pechacek said, if in-person entertainment venues permanently lose customers to streaming services at home, or the use of telehealth remains higher than it was before the pandemic, “we feel like there’s going to be some great opportunities in upskilling and rounding out our current workforce.”
The budget also calls for an additional $500,000 over two years on Wisconsin’s youth apprenticeship program and additional spending on vocational rehabilitation programs to help young adults with disabilities enter the workforce.
Pechacek also called attention to a proposed pilot program to support people in workplace training. In the past, some people have dropped out of training because of outside problems — lack of transportation or inability to find child care — that kept them from finishing the program, she said. The budget includes $10 million to “[make] sure they have the resources to really address any type of barriers in their life to be successful in our training programs.”