Let’s face it. Kenosha County deserves a better functioning labor market. Our employers need more people to hire into jobs. Our residents need more education to qualify for many of those jobs, and especially for the jobs that offer a family-sustaining wage. This is the only route to greater prosperity.
As the situation has become prolonged, employers have taken some steps they can. They are offering more in pay, and signing and retention bonuses. They are advertising more, on billboard after billboard. But it’s not enough. Many jobs are going unfilled. At the same time, fewer and fewer young people are pursuing any education after high school, taking higher wages than in years past but not pursuing a path that will advance themselves or our economy over the long term.
If we are to succeed, our residents will need more education. The rate of high school graduates in Kenosha pursuing any postsecondary education — at any 2-year or 4-year institution — recently fell by 20 percentage points.
If we are to succeed, our residents will need family-sustaining jobs. A recent Wisconsin Policy Forum report on Kenosha County noted that, when compared to other similarly sized Midwestern counties, our average household income was average, while our average wages were much lower. That means more people, including parents, must work more than one job. That’s not the environment for prosperity for our county. Yes, we have more jobs. But that’s not translating to more prosperity.
Make no mistake. These are not simply pandemic-era trends. They go back years and simply accelerated during the pandemic. Even if a recession took us back to pre-pandemic supply and demand, we would face these same concerns.
It’s time we get on with solutions. Doing the same thing for longer and longer will not produce a different result. And why should we wait for someone else — the federal government, the state of Wisconsin, some think tank — to solve our problems, when we know our situation best?
We need to roll up our sleeves and get it done, just like we did when Kenosha started high schools, hospitals, and other institutions that were needed.
An idea we need now is actually an old idea whose time has come again. That is workplace-delivered education, a modern version of “night school.”
The old part of this idea is that working people used to be able to learn post-high-school-level skills in lots of ways. In 1962, when Carthage opened in Kenosha, faculty were teaching working students in multiple locations, from Milwaukee to North Chicago to, of course, Kenosha. Back then, unions also provided ways for younger people to learn needed skills, and the high membership rate ensured wide access.
The new part of the idea is that we make access to education as smooth now as it was then, but tailored to modern circumstances. Today, whether it is households with two working parents, or employee work schedules that change with demand, not everyone can go to a class scheduled at night, far from their home or workplace. But a class right at the workplace, in a training room, right at the beginning or the end of a shift — that can work.
What’s more, low-cost, workplace-delivered education can be a way to recruit more employees, solving the hiring problem and the education problem at the same time. This has, in fact, already begun. Companies like Amazon are already offering employees free online college courses. Here, we can do better, offering employees in-person education tailored to the needs of industries and employees, paid for by employers, for less than the cost of signing bonuses, and for greater value to employees.
That’s the program we’re calling Carthage Spark. We’re beginning with our first partner, LMI Packaging Solutions in Pleasant Prairie, where 11 employees just completed a college-level business course offered on site. In this way, we are recruiting new employees for LMI and increasing the ranks who will now pursue more post-high-school education than they would have otherwise. That’s a win for us all.
If your company has great hiring needs, Carthage Spark may very well be the solution you need.
Written by Dr. John Swallow, President, Carthage College.