By Rich Rovito, Industry Reporter, WMEP

Wisconsin has long been a leader in workforce innovation, starting with its first-in-the-nation apprenticeship program in 1911. Thousands of Wisconsin workers have succeeded in providing for their families with rewarding careers over the past century due to this on-the-job training program that has evolved and today remains as critical a workforce solution as ever. Now Wisconsin is setting yet another example in worker training with Gov. Scott Walker’s Wisconsin Fast Forward initiative.

A little over year ago, Governor Walker offered the initiative not only to address an immediate skills gap that Wisconsin manufacturers and other employers faced, but to ensure a skilled workforce for years to come, according to Reggie Newson, secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development.

The Governor’s plan to provide $15 million in state-funded worker training grants was quick to win overwhelming bipartisan support in both houses of the Legislature. Recently, Governor Walker signed legislation under his Blueprint for Prosperity initiative to expand Wisconsin Fast Forward by another $35.4 million.

What makes Wisconsin Fast Forward especially intriguing as a model is its focus on employer-driven, customized solutions that demonstrate collaboration by public and private sector partners and have strong accountability measures to yield measurable results, Newson said. Wisconsin Fast Forward benefits employers, workers and Wisconsin taxpayers.

“We knew we had a winner in Wisconsin Fast Forward, but even we were surprised by the initial response,” Newson said. The state recently announced the first round of grant awards totaling more than $2.6 million, and is currently in the second round with as much as $7.5 million in grant funds available.

“The response to the initial grant offer was enthusiastic,” Newson said.

The state sought proposals to train workers in manufacturing, construction and customer service, and it approved 32 for funding.

“We were especially encouraged by the interest expressed among Wisconsin employers in the program and their collaboration with technical colleges, regional and local workforce agencies and nonprofit organizations in submitting applications,” said Newson.

In introducing his Blueprint for Prosperity earlier this year, Governor Walker proposed an additional $35 million to expand Wisconsin Fast Forward into other areas. Highlights include:

  • Support for school district and technical college dual enrollment programs that target high demand jobs;
  • Investment in technical colleges to eliminate waiting lists in growth sectors, such as manufacturing, agriculture, and information technology; and
  • Support for programs helping people with disabilities enter the workforce.

Helping people with disabilities enter the workforce holds special significance for Governor Walker this year. Building a workforce to move Wisconsin forward must be inclusive to be successful, Newson said. In proclaiming this the Year of a Better Bottom Line, the Governor is highlighting employers that hire people with disabilities because these are individuals with abilities and skills to contribute to the workforce.

“Whether through Wisconsin Fast Forward, our tried-and-true apprenticeship model or a host of other programs, we are building a workforce to move Wisconsin forward,” Newson said.