Approach to job training changes

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Jim Leute
Sunday, December 15, 2013

JANESVILLE--Looking back, Bob Borremans isn't sure he would have done workforce training any differently in the wake of the General Motors closure.

The only thing he'd like to change is the outcome.

Hundreds of dislocated workers went back to school or were retrained for local careers that never materialized, he said.

Part of the reason they didn't materialize was because job seekers were pursuing career dreams that in many cases were not grounded in local job openings, said Borremans, executive director of the Southwest Wisconsin Workforce Development Board.

When the announcement came in 2008 that GM planned to end production in Janesville, community leaders struck out along two paths they hoped would lead to recovery:

-- Economic development officials and business interests formed Rock County 5.0, an initiative heavily focused on marketing and luring new companies to the area.

-- Workforce development officials such as Borremans focused on the thousands of workers who lost their jobs when the local automotive sector crumbled.

“The idea was to get people retrained and get them back to work as quickly as we could,” Borremans said. “Unfortunately, we prepared an awful lot of people with new skills, and they weren't able to take advantage of that.”


Upon hearing of GM's plans, those concerned with the socioeconomic service of the area's dislocated workers launched Collaborative Organizations Responding to Dislocations, a conglomeration of groups and agencies that traditionally serve dislocated workers and their families.

Soon thereafter, representatives from other parts of the country visited Janesville with suggestions for further resources and grants.

“None of that seemed to hit, and it was not for a lack of trying,” Borremans said. “We were just so busy responding at the local level that we probably didn't make the effort we could pursuing things at other levels.

“We had decided right away that we had to do this ourselves, and any grants would be gravy.”

Looking back, Borremans said, local initiatives tried to provide training to lots of people for match their interests, but local jobs never materialized for those interests.

“I'm not sure we could have done anything differently, but we let people pursue whatever they were interested in, and things got saturated,” he said. “If we trained 100 people to be accountants and there were only 25 accounting jobs, were we really providing a service to these people?”

Borremans said that what was missed on the local level was the extent to which the Great Recession was restructuring the economy, particularly in the manufacturing sector.

Employers got leaner and more efficient, primarily with new technologies, he said.

“Automation and technology typically result in fewer workers, but employers still need people to run those things,” Borremans said. “We just didn't recognize and adapt to the changing dynamics as quickly as we probably should have.”


When it became clear that the area was not generating jobs to match graduates' skills, talk of the skills gap accelerated.

Specific local employers had job openings, but they weren't matching up with the skills job seekers were acquiring, Borremans said.

That's when Borremans and others changed their thinking.

“Traditional workforce programming has two customers: the job seeker and the business,” he said. “We changed that to just one customer—the employer—and then developed programming to produce employees with the skills for the positions the employers were seeking.”

That's the motivation for the local “Work Today” program that matches a growing number of local employers and their skill needs with local job seekers and training programs.

“It identifies the job skills needed by employers and then takes it to the job seekers,” Borremans said.

The program involves more than 6,000 short-term training programs offered through Manpower.

“We've totally redesigned how we deliver services, and I think it's important to how we address the skills gap that will continue with retirements and new technology,” Borremans said.

“It just seems to me that traditional education programs take too long for what we need, and I'm confident that we're on the right track with this.”

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