County is ripe with jobs, but Milwaukee is center for workforce
Ozaukee County is in the enviable position of have a thriving economy and plenty of jobs.
However, finding people to fill those jobs continues to be a transportation challenge for the region.
That was the message shared last week with business representatives and community leaders during a forum in the Ozaukee County Courthouse.
The two-hour session, titled “Transportation? Understanding Ozaukee’s Problems,” was hosted by Ozaukee Economic Development, SEEK Careers/Staffing and the Grafton Area Chamber of Commerce.
The forum was moderated by Ozaukee County Transit Supr. Jason Wittek.
The panelists included Joe Peterangelo, senior researcher with the Public Policy Forum; Kevin Muhs, principal transportation planner with the Southeast Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission; and Kerry Thomas, executive director of the public transit advocacy organization MetroGo.
The panelists summarized current and future efforts to bring Milwaukee’s labor force to Ozaukee County.
Thomas, who has spent most of her time attempting to link potential work sites with transit options in the region, spoke of the issue in the most direct terms.
“We have a problem. It is urgent,” she said, noting that projections suggest there will be as many as 10,000 unfilled jobs in the region by 2020 unless measures are taken to get more people where the vacancies are.
Further underlining her point, Thomas said during the past five years the region has seen an increase of 57,000 jobs while the workforce has grown by only 10,000.
“What we are talking about now is a quantitative gap vs. a skills gap,” she said.
A workforce shortage undermines efforts to promote economic development and tax base growth, Thomas said.
One way to address that issue is by better marketing the area to job seekers, and by making local employers more aware of the transportation options that can make their jobs more accessible.
Public transit has become vital for some segments of the workforce, with Thomas noting that a surprisingly large number of young people are choosing not to get driver’s licenses or own cars.
The panelists said 10% of the workforce does not have access to any vehicle.
In recognition of that national trend, Thomas said comparable communities around the country have increased spending on public transit by 7.8%. In contrast, the metropolitan Milwaukee area has cut transit spending by 20%.
Ozaukee County does have a successful bus service between Milwaukee and the area, the Ozaukee Express.
After a drop in riders last year, the express bus is expected to have 81,000 riders this year.
Similarly, the county’s shared-ride taxi service is expected to have a banner year with 116,000 riders.
The panelists said creative solutions need to be approached, such as privately subsidized shuttles from the bus drop-off sites.
Muhs said SEWRPC is in the process of addressing just such issues in a regional 2050 plan that is expected to take about three years to complete.
Ozaukee County is also formulating a five-year transportation plan, thanks in part to business leaders involved in the Ozaukee County Transit Initiative.
The solutions — like express buses which have dedicated traffic lanes and the ability to synchronize with traffic signals — that come from those studies will inevitably carry a price.
“It is going to be expensive. Things like this aren’t free,” Muhs said.
Thomas said she realizes business leaders can easily feel overwhelmed by surveys and fact-finding attempts, but there is a payoff for cooperating with these efforts.
“When transportation planners get good information, significant improvements can be made,” Thomas said.
Wittek said the turnout of about 50 people at the forum is an indication that transportation concerns are a priority with the business community.
“Ozaukee Transit is being challenged to find better ways to serve the workforce through expanded times, more on-demand service and finding ways to cross county lines or connect with neighboring services where the labor pool is,” he said.
“The ‘last mile’ problem continues to be a barrier for folks getting to work in Ozaukee County from Milwaukee County in terms of providing transportation service that is not too cumbersome in terms of time spent in transit.”
Image Information: FULL PARK AND RIDE lots are just one indication of the challenge employers have in accommodating workers heading to and from Ozaukee County for jobs. That topic was addressed during a recent transit forum hosted by Ozaukee Economic Development, SEEK Careers/Staffing and the Grafton Area Chamber of Commerce. Photo by Sam Arendt