On July 11th, Millennial Action Project hosted an evening of community discussion around the “Future of Work” in the Sheboygan area. The event was the eighth in a series of bipartisan dialogues MAP has hosted across Wisconsin, and brought together over 40 community members from across the political spectrum to discuss the state of the local workforce and the future of the economy.
Hosted at Three Sheeps Brewing Company, the night began with time for casual conversation and dinner. The evening then kicked off with a panel discussion featuring community leaders, Wisconsin Future Caucus members Tyler Vorpagel (R-27) and Daniel Riemer (D-7) as well as local business leader Laura Kohler and Lakeshore Technical College President Dr. Paul Carlsen.
MAP President Steven Olikara introduced the panel by reflecting on his own experiences. “Tonight in many ways was inspired by conversations I’ve had with people here in the audience as well as here on the panel about the future of the workforce in Sheboygan and the future of work in the region, and we know the best solutions are going to come from across the aisle and they’re going to be the result of a productive dialogue across our political opinions. And that’s what this is all about.”
After introductions, the conversation quickly turned to the particularities of the Sheboygan region. Historically dynamic but impacted significantly by the 2008 financial crisis, Sheboygan has rebounded well yet faces structural challenges to growth. Rep. Vorpagel pointed out how low unemployment has led to a surplus of open jobs, including at some of the region’s largest and most profitable businesses. But the difficulties are not limited to major corporations—small businesses are likewise facing hiring challenges and an extremely competitive market wage.
Laura Kohler, of the Kohler Company, one of the region’s longest operating employers, highlighted how limited housing supply has been a challenge in recruiting both young and experienced talent to the region. Panelists shared some of the innovative strategies implemented in Sheboygan to address these issues, such as efforts to better connect students directly to job training opportunities. Red Raider Manufacturing, a partnership between the Sheboygan Area School District and Lakeshore Technical College that better prepares students for careers in the area and works to shift the narrative of manufacturing to reflect the high-skilled and high-paying reality.
Panelists also discussed of College Here & Now, a similar program that allows students to simultaneously pursue a high school and associate's degree with transferable credits, before turning the conversation to the issue of child care. Currently, child care providers are scarce and costs are prohibitive to many families in the area. Rep. Riemer, father of a one-year old, highlighted that in some cases, the absence of affordable child care prevents the employment of parents who are otherwise able and eager to work. Dr. Carlsen noted that Lakeshore Technical College operates a day care facility at a loss annually to provide for students. Lastly, the dialogue highlighted the strengths of the Sheboygan region, with solid business and manufacturing roots, a strong and growing hospitality industry, splendid natural resources and a diversifying public life, panelist stressed the need to hold up the region’s successes with pride, while urging an open mind in addressing challenges.
Community members then broke apart into discussion tables where they shared their personal experience with workforce issues and thought through the action needed to improve Sheboygan’s future. Many attendees concurred around the need to address the local housing challenges, but conversations ranged from addressing the opioids trend, to improving high school curriculums, to re-engaging older community members to provide career guidance. Community members and panelists alike recognized the strengths of their home region and the need to project those into the future.