The legislation was the first to pass in Gov. Walker's $100 million workforce agenda over the 2013-15 biennial budget period, passing even before the budget did.
"(Wisconsin Fast Forward) is the cornerstone of the state's workforce investment strategy," said Reggie Newson, secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development.
"It's the most proactive and most aggressive investment in worker training that I can remember," said Bryan Albrecht, president of Gateway Technical College.
Wisconsin Fast Forward is a $15 million worker training grant program and it's kicking into gear in 2014.
"The ultimate goal is to develop talent to fill existing jobs and create new ones," Newson said.
Applications for the first round of worker training grants were due in mid-December, and DWD – and its new Office of Skills Development that was also created as a part of the Fast Forward initiative – is currently in the process of evaluating those grants, which are set to be announced in January.
The first round of grants amounts to $2.7 million, and focuses on worker training in three areas – manufacturing, construction and customer service.
Scott Jansen, director of the Office of Skills Development, said $400,000 of the grant money will go to customer service, $300,000 to small manufacturers (with less than 50 full-time employees), $1 million to manufacturers of any size and the remainder will go toward construction. The grants are set to be announced in late January, and the earliest training grant implementations could be up and running as soon as March 2014, Jansen said.
A key aspect of Wisconsin Fast Forward, Jansen said, is the program's requirement to hire the employees being trained.
"We don't just want to throw public money at additional training," Jansen said. "We want (businesses) to be able to make the hire at the end of the program."
Jansen said businesses applying for these grants must prove a commitment to hire.
Newson said that with this program using "demand-driven" requirements, it is focusing on "underemployed, unemployed and incumbent workers."
The $12 million that remains after the first round will be allocated each quarter, as the DWD will announce a new round every three to four months until June 2015, Newson said.
The Office of Skills Development is currently analyzing which occupations and sectors to focus on for the program's second round, which will be announced in late January, Jansen said.
Wisconsin Fast Forward is built to be an inclusive, collaborative process, Jansen said, with input and expertise from strategic partners, including the Wisconsin Fast Forward Grant Evaluation Committee, which includes panel members from the DWD, the Wisconsin Technical College System, the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation and Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, as well as the employers applying for the grants.
"This whole process allows us to be nimble and flexible to be able to meet employers' needs and incentivize and develop talent in high demand areas of the state," Newson said. "It also does something impactful that goes along with what the governor wants to do, which is aligning education, workforce development and economic development to create an economic development outcome."
Newson said the Wisconsin Fast Forward grant programs will be "employer-driven," "demand-driven" and "customized based on their specific needs."
In the grant applications themselves, Jansen said, "employers need to identify what the curriculum is, and they're the ones writing the curriculum."
"Wisconsin Fast Forward is based on models from other states – Louisiana, Georgia, Texas, Minnesota – creating a demand-driven program that employers can access…to do customized worker training to be able to meet the skills gap," Newson said.
Pat O'Brien, president of the Milwaukee Development Corporation and the Milwaukee 7, said there's been a lot of discussion on the issue of the skills gap, noting that many companies complain that they can't find employees while at the same time the unemployment rate is 7 to 8 percent, and higher for people of color. It is a challenge to the region, he said, with companies getting pickier to compete in a world economy and lower-skills jobs going to Mexico and overseas.
Albrecht said the issue of a "skills gap" is more of a moving target because of rapid changes in new technology.
"There is a skills gap, but there is probably a larger skills mismatch, where (current) skills may not align with new skills that are necessary," he said, giving automated manufacturing and other computer-related skills as examples. "That second-tier skills training is where we see the gap. The effort now is to close a higher-level skills gap."
"We need to make sure people are wired into the jobs of the future," O'Brien said.
The Office of Skills Development was created as a part of this initiative to oversee the grants and programs and to be a collaborative, convening force to align the efforts of the state's education, workforce development and economic development, Newson said.
"It's been a very good resource because it provides a communication network," Albrecht said. "The Office of Skills Development pulled several offices together so it can have a greater impact on the dollars that are invested."
O'Brien said Jansen, who's most recent job before becoming the director of the Office of Skills Development was with the Greater Milwaukee Committee, is the right person to be leading this initiative, citing previous workforce development initiatives with the GMC.
"I have a lot of faith in Scott Jansen," O'Brien said. "He's been a cornerstone of this project. I really respect Reggie (Newson) for putting this together."
Jansen said the office currently has four employees, and completes tasks like writing administration rules, designing the grant process, building the website (Wisconsinfastforward.com), marketing the initiative, managing the grant application process and auditing the training program.
It was through the new office's efforts that DWD was able to identify construction, manufacturing and customer service as the fields for the first round of grants.
"We saw from our strategic partners, from technical colleges and from our employer inquiry that those three are in high demand right now," Jansen said.
"This is all strategic," Newson said. "At the Job Center of Wisconsin website, there is somewhere between 30,000 and 40,000 available jobs listed at any given time. At any one point in time, there's between 100,000 and 150,000 jobs going unfilled in the state of Wisconsin. These programs will help us fill those jobs."
Jansen said that 1,200 to 1,400 customer service jobs are available on the Job Center's website on a weekly basis.
"Customer service is the number one requested job position in the state," Newson said.
Any specific connections from this program to the Milwaukee area remain to be seen, but Jansen said there have been many applicants within the Milwaukee area for Fast Forward grants, and that there will be a regional focus.
"You'll see in grant program announcements that employers will validate request with places like the M7," said Jansen. "(They) need to validate that those are legitimate skill needs."
Jansen said one area in Milwaukee where a need for skills development has been identified is in automated manufacturing.
"Population-wise, we're 36 percent of the state in the M7 region, and we're 38 to 40 percent of the state's gross product," O'Brien said. "On any measure, we're 35-40 percent of the state's economy. Any program the state does that's statewide has a big impact on us. On average, (the Milwaukee 7 region) should get 35 to 40 percent of those dollars."
Albrecht said his greatest hope for the program is for it to put people back to work.
"In southeastern Wisconsin, with new job areas coming to be available – like the 2,100 new jobs in Kenosha County – we're going to have to find a way to invest in training to meet that demand," he said.