Originally published by the Aspen Institute
A Profile of Job Quality Fellow Lindsay Blumer, President and CEO, WRTP l BIG STEP
Working in the construction and manufacturing industries has been a traditional stepping stone to the middle class for millions of workers in the US. Job quality and equitable access to these jobs, however, has been inconsistent, as is the case in many industries. Lindsay Blumer, president and CEO of WRTP | BIG STEP, a workforce intermediary in Milwaukee, notes, “The systems and the historical infrastructure of construction and manufacturing have not been immune to some of the systemic ways in which people of color and women have been left out.”
WRTP | BIG STEP has been at the forefront of tackling workforce issues in Milwaukee since the 1990s when the city saw its industrial base evaporate, its workforce aging, and poverty and inequity grow. Partnering with high-road employers has always been a key part of the organization’s approach. Highlighting WRTP | BIG STEP’s role as an intermediary, Lindsay remarked, “We boldly work toward building impactful connections between people and industry in innovative and equitable ways that reinforce the systems and tools that build America’s middle class. To do this, we implement partnerships with high-road employers and industry networks, unions, policy entities, and strategic players; provide technical and relevant skills-training and coaching for in-demand careers; and drive and engage apprenticeship.”
Building pathways to apprenticeship programs for women and people of color has been the organization’s focus for some time. Continuing to break down those barriers and open up access will remain a focus, but WRTP | BIG STEP’s work to improve outcomes and broaden success is evolving at the same time. Lindsay says, “We are refocusing on social return on investment, of which markers include high-quality job development, retainment, and support.” That focus on social return is coupled with the agency’s longstanding commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion, which Lindsay says is “ingrained in everything we do.”
An Intermediary at the Nexus of Job Quality
Balancing the needs of workers and employers has been a long-standing challenge for workforce development intermediaries. In many cases, that balance becomes too weighted toward one side, most often toward employers, which leads to poor outcomes for workers. For WRTP | BIG STEP, finding that balance is part of the organization’s DNA.
The organization was founded upon the merger of BIG STEP, an organization created in the 1970s to support women and people of color in diversifying the building trades with the Wisconsin Regional Training Partnership, an entity dedicated to addressing skills shortages in manufacturing and construction. As a workforce intermediary with strong ties to workers, community, unions, and industry, WRTP | BIG STEP sits at the nexus of the job quality conversation. The organization relies on the deep experience, relationships, and capacity it has developed through that work to navigate disparate stakeholder needs and improve outcomes for workers and businesses.
The ability to convene and listen to what workers, unions, businesses, and other partners need to be successful and then customize solutions that creates wins for these stakeholders is a huge strength for the organization. From its view, addressing job quality is not very different from other challenges the organization has helped solve. According to Lindsay, “Our strategic approach to advancing job quality is to focus on our role as a true workforce intermediary. Working with employers on what a quality job looks like, providing support to achieve quality jobs (apprenticeship, on-the-job training, etc.), and implementing in-demand customizable training for participants to fill talent pipelines for quality jobs.”
The organization leverages its position to support job quality and opportunity in a number of ways. “We’ve learned how to navigate the world of negotiation among employers and unions,” Lindsay says. This ability has allowed the organization to start their own apprenticeship committee. Part of the organization’s work is also funded by contractors and labor unions. This funding supports apprenticeship readiness for workers, youth employment programming, and technical assistance to employers in meeting local hiring requirements. WRTP | BIG STEP is also currently developing and preparing to convene a task force of employers and labor unions to further examine the barriers women and people of color face in construction and manufacturing.
Few organizations can successfully navigate and bridge these types of collaborations and issues, which is why the marriage of WRTP and BIG STEP, founded with different but complementary intents, leaves them so well positioned to drive the ongoing conversation around job quality and opportunity in the Milwaukee area.
WRTP | BIG STEP’s recent results are hard to argue. Over 15% of the workers served by the organization are women and 55% are people of color – both well above industry representation. Workers placed in jobs average an initial wage of $23.36 per hour and over 40% of people placed into jobs moved into a certified pre-apprenticeship or apprenticeship pathway with an average wage of $33.03. Almost 30% of people placed by WRTP | BIG STEP into construction are African-American. Nearly 20% of participants are referred by employers or industry partners, which is evidence of the strong collaboration and track record the program has with employers.
While the organization specializes in the development of hands-on, pre-employment training certificate programs, and individualized tutoring in academic skills for apprenticeship exams, it knows expansion of this work is needed to improve job quality. As a result, WRTP | BIG STEP is also increasing its advocacy around job quality. Lindsay has a background in executive leadership, developing community-based solutions, and in various advocacy and policy roles at the state level, so this work is not new to her. She hopes to create a team dedicated to policy advocacy at WRTP | BIG STEP eventually, but that isn’t stopping Lindsay and her team in the meantime. Lindsay says they are advocating for job quality with a wide range of public and private stakeholders locally, regionally, and nationally, including with economic development entities, state government, and employers. The goal is to “showcase to employers the importance of creating quality jobs for a qualified workforce,” says Lindsay.