By J Wilberg
Governor Walker’s announcement of the plan to use WHEDA’s bonding authority to raise $100 million to invest in Milwaukee’s 30th Street Industrial Corridor is welcome news in many ways. Most meaningful in the short term is that this economically depleted neighborhood might become the battleground for the race for Governor. If only for the next month, the issues of this once booming part of town could be on the front page. The announcement also demonstrates that there are a lot of ways to tackle economic development. Using the WHEDA bonding authority as an instrument for economic development rather than continuing the non-job creation strategy of more and more housing development signals an evolution in thinking that is long overdue.
The innovative features of the plan are overshadowed by its adherence to two old, very worn-out shibboleths; namely, that Milwaukee companies have job they are unable to fill and that Milwaukee workers are too unskilled and undisciplined to be good employees. Each of these is true to some extent but neither is as important as policymakers want to believe. It only takes one story of a major corporate CEO complaining that he cannot find skilled workers for the policy and funding waters to part. The blame game then becomes hot and heavy. Elected officials and corporate leaders practically stand in line to take shots at the Milwaukee Public Schools and Milwaukee Area Technical College, never mind the huge numbers of graduates of both institutions who are employed in local government and businesses.
Could both of these institutions do better? Sure, but so could employers. In major initiatives like the 30th Street project, employers are frequently asked what they want in workers but they are hardly ever asked about their hiring practices. There is an assumption that there hiring practices are appropriate and fair. This leads to the companion assumption that applicants who do not get hired failed to meet employer standards that were appropriate and fair. This does not describe what is really happening.
Equal opportunity laws forced public employers like police and fire departments to completely revamp their application, testing, and hiring practices to remove bias and facilitate fair employment practices. As a result, diversity in their ranks has increased. It is time corporate CEO’s who are complaining about worker shortages to look critically at their own hiring practices relative to racial disparities. One place to start is the growing reliance on CCAP (Circuit Court Automation Program) to predict whether a job applicant will be a good employee. CCAP is an online information system which makes everyone’s legal past available for review. CCAP lists an individual’s traffic tickets, civil judgments, divorce proceedings, as well as felony convictions. CCAP even lists charges that were later dismissed. Nowhere has the term ‘too much information’ been more apt that in the case of what employers can learn and use against applicants via CCAP. Of course employers want to know if an applicant has committed a felony. Whether a felony conviction should bar someone from employment is another question. The key thing is that minor things, like speeding or disorderly conduct tickets issues years prior, can be used a reasons not to hire.
Is it any wonder that our state’s glaring racial disparity in law enforcement – including traffic stops, charging decisions, sentencing, and probation revocation – extends its ugly hands into the employment sphere? A history of municipal ordinance violations or other legal troubles which has nothing to do with employment history or potential should not be used as a reason to disqualify potential applicants especially when we know how prevalent racial disparities are in law enforcement decision-making.
Our state has convened a Commission on Racial Disparity, funded projects locally to address the persistent imbalance in the application of the law, and tracks its progress in annual reports issued by the Office of Justice Assistance. Clearly, the existence of racial disparities is not in question. Yet, employers continue to use the consequences of racial disparity, as reflected on CCAP, to keep people out of work.
Milwaukee employers should stop complaining about MPS, MATC, and the pool of prospective workers and take a hard, critical look at their own hiring practices, especially their reliance on CCAP as a primary tool for evaluating prospective workers. We have let the private sector off the hook for too long. Now is the time for employers to own up and stand up.
For more information on racial disparities in Wisconsin, go to the Office of Justice Assistance website at http://oja.wi.gov/section.asp?linkid=1344&locid=97