October 13, 2008

Green-Collar Jobs Need an Educated Work Force Grants to Help Train Teens in Water-Related Industries


If local work force development experts have their way, Milwaukee will be a leader in the nation's transition to green-collar jobs.

But area teenagers have to be on board before the city's economic future can be shaped around sustainable, environmentally friendly work.

"The business community's always saying, 'Where is education?' " said Lauren Baker, coordinator of career and technical education for Milwaukee Public Schools. "We're trying to reorient the whole notion of work force development and drag the beginning of that talent pipeline down into K-12."

With the help of grants from the U.S. Department of Labor's WIRED Initiative -- Workforce Innovation in Regional Economic Development - - MPS and the Milwaukee Community Service Corps are learning how to train teens for jobs in water-related industries. In recent years, business and government officials in the region's seven counties have argued that southeastern Wisconsin is well-poised to develop new water technologies, given its proximity to the world's largest freshwater system.

In spring, MPS received a $35,000 grant through the WIRED Initiative to brainstorm ways to tailor Project Lead the Way, a national curriculum that focuses on applied math and science, to the water industries. This year, MPS has 4,000 students in 17 schools engaged in project-based learning related to topics such as robotics, hydraulics and digital electronics through Project Lead the Way. The next step is to get students learning the fundamentals of engineering and technologies related to water, Baker said.

The jobs area teens can expect to land if they take these new courses are still being developed, said Michael Mortell, coordinator of the Regional Workforce Alliance of Southeastern Wisconsin and the WIRED Initiative.

"Anytime a new industry emerges, the opportunities are wide open," Mortell said. "The specific jobs within it don't even have titles yet."

MPS has invited the Racine Unified and South Milwaukee school districts to join its series of meetings with area business leaders. The meetings began last month, and the goal is to localize the Project Lead the Way curriculum and generally get young people interested in the jobs that the region's business leaders hope they'll be able to offer in coming years. About 95% of MPS alumni stay in Milwaukee, Baker said.

"We want the summer youth employment programs to start employing kids in these fields," she said. "Let's get them in a water reclamation program or some related job."

The Milwaukee Community Service Corps, a job training program for ages 14 to 23, received a $25,000 grant from the WIRED Innovation Fund to pursue a similar goal. About 80% of corps members have dropped out of school, said Chris Litzau, the organization's director.

In the last decade, the organization has trained these young people how to test, monitor and clean up abandoned industrial sites. The WIRED grant will allow the program to expand into the water industries. Litzau said he expects to prepare his corps members for jobs such as treating industrial wastewater and drilling wells to collect groundwater.

Corps members earn minimum wage to work on projects around Milwaukee.

But Litzau said that in addition to training youths for water industries, he wants to look beyond the state's borders for work opportunities.

He's been thinking about developing a phytoremediation project -- using plants to clean contaminated soil and groundwater -- that corps members could take wherever Milwaukee companies do business around the country or the globe.

MPS and the Community Service Corps want to spend the next five to six months planning these initiatives, and Baker said she expects to see some changes to the district's Project Lead the Way curriculum as early as next year.

School districts, technical colleges and community-based organizations are too often disconnected from area businesses, said Mortell of the Regional Workforce Alliance.

On the Web

The WIRED Innovation Fund is accepting applications through Nov. 3. Visit www.milwaukee7-rwa.org for more information.

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