11/20/2014 04:36 pm ET Updated Jan 20, 2015

Industry Led, Worker Centered, Community Focused: Lessons from the WRTP/BIG STEP in Milwaukee

Engulfed at times in a fog of confusing acronyms and buzzwords and not quite large enough to be noticed by those without an eye for it, "workforce development" can seem a city unto itself. With so many others, I've done what I can to help build this city, focusing my time and effort at the intersection where the interests of labor, employers, and community come together.

If I had it my way, that crossroads would be the center and pride of this city, supported by all sorts of public policy, infrastructure, and respect. And coming through it the traffic would flow in every direction, connecting interests that are too often seen at odds. There would be strong unions representing and supporting worker interests in all the economy. There would be strong employers with good jobs and a focus on skills and productivity. And there would be a strong community with capacity to connect to the best employers. They would come together in some sort of glorious roundabout of mutual interest (and, yes, here this already stretched metaphor finally takes flight) that contributes to creating an economy fit for humanity.

Too abstract, all this. More concretely, I'm talking about the very real work that Milwaukee's Wisconsin Regional Training Partnership (WRTP)/BIG STEP has done at this intersection for more than 20 years. The WRTP/BIG STEP can reasonably be called the nation's premier labor-led workforce intermediary. I've had the honor of contributing to its work and learning from its leaders for nearly twenty years. Evolving from roots in manufacturing, the WRTP/BIG STEP has proven through rigorous evaluation and long sustainability that it is building lasting solutions to problems that riddle firms, workers, communities, and our labor market.

In the recently released Connecting People to Work, Earl Buford (former Executive Director of the organization and now CEO of the Milwaukee Workforce Investment Board) and I contributed a chapter reflecting on the important work that has gone on at the organization over more than two decades. That chapter covers the evolution of the project and its work with the region's employers and unions to build the skills of current workers and to find new ways to connect potential workers - through information, skills, and preparation - to real jobs in those industries. This succinct summary from the organization says it this way: "WRTP/BIG STEP is Industry Led, Worker-Centered and Community Focused. Our mission is to enhance the ability of public and private sector organizations to recruit and develop a more diverse, qualified workforce in construction, manufacturing and emerging industry sectors of the regional economy. In 2013, WRTP/BIG STEP exceeded their workforce goals by serving 1862 individuals, placing 743 into careers with an average hourly wage of $17.00."

An impressive mission and significant results. I'm proud to have helped contribute as the WRTP/BIG STEP has evolved through long and short-term alterations of the American economy. And I'm pleased that their work provides a model for something that works, even if what exactly "it" is can be a bit alienating if workforce training isn't your everyday business. The work they do goes by a lot of names: "intermediary" or "industry partnership" or "sector strategy." But at its core are two things that make the organization work: workers and jobs. And by workers, I mean the voices and interests of workers - not just folks who want to get jobs, but the ones who currently have them. And by jobs, I mean that the WRTP/BIG STEP connects people to existing jobs - through training, through direct placement, through its own subsidiary staffing firm. This project is directly connected to employer demand, but at the same time to workers' interests via unions. Those connections fundamentally change and strengthen workforce intermediaries. And the project has demonstrated through good economic times and through bad that starting with jobs and paying attention to the worksite and developing real relationships with employers and worker leaders is work that can pay-off for those workers, firms, and the community.

Significantly, in terms of community interest, this organization - labor and management led, but with community values -- helps create a pathway to reach better jobs in the labor market. Too many of our public systems indiscriminately engage employers. This reach to employers is important. But its undisciplined scope tends to make our public systems most responsive to our worst employers. After all, who calls the public system for help? The very employers with the highest turnover - they have the openings.

For the sake of workers and the community and for our better employers, the system must do better than that. And labor/management partnership demonstrates that this sort of project can reach to the region's best employers. And because workers' voices are central to the project, training is better directed and worksite mentors and support systems are more easily developed. Because employers and union leaders are engaged in project development, the work connects to a changed system of employment, not just the front door for HR. This work - that puts workers and jobs at the center of training -- is important and worth more attention than it gets, inside our insular community and beyond its confines.

So does this work at the intersection of community, employer, and worker interest really hold lessons of broader interest and applicability? Yes. In spite of your reasonable skepticism about its lessons when labor unions represent a small (and falling) share of the labor force. Most certainly yes. More employers and more unions need to embrace this sort of work and develop partnerships to focus on building the skills of workers and provide stronger on-ramps into these jobs from the communities who need them. Public systems should recognize and reach to and support this infrastructure. And everyone working on issues of training and job access should think more about job quality, the structure of work inside of firms, and connections to worker interests and voices, even as they pursue employer engagement. Work that puts workers and jobs at the center of training is essential work. And unions have ways of getting the center right that management and public systems alone cannot secure.

The blog is part of a special blog series inspired by the release of the edited volume, "Connecting People to Work: Workforce Intermediaries and Sector Strategies" and focused on the question: what do we know about what works in connecting people to work?

Connecting People to Work: Workforce Intermediaries and Sector Strategies edited by Maureen Conway, vice president, Aspen Institute, and Robert P. Giloth, vice president, Annie E. Casey Foundation, is available in soft cover and Kindle version from Amazon. Engage with this work using #connect2work.