— Since Eric Isbister and his wife Mary bought the Mequon-based
metal fabrication business GenMet Corp. in 1999, they have struggled
with filling open positions; and they are not alone.
At 2.5 percent,
Ozaukee County has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the
state, according to May data from the Wisconsin Department of
Workforce Development, which creates a challenge for local business
owners like the Isbisters, who are searching for employees. One
solution could be tapping into the labor pool in Milwaukee, which
has an unemployment rate of 3.7 percent, but the distance often
proves to be a challenge for commuters.
“The ability of
workers in Milwaukee County to travel
here is more difficult if they
don’t have a car,” said Kathleen Cady Schilling, executive director
of Ozaukee Economic Development.
employees, GenMet sources workers from north and west Ozaukee County
to Milwaukee’s south side. Isbister said they welcome people right
out of high school or technical colleges and are willing to train
new employees in the skills they need. Despite many open entry-level
positions, however, the scarcity in employee numbers throttles the
growth of the business.
“There isn’t any
public transit. That means in order to work here you have to be able
to drive a car, and that cuts out a vast amount of people who I can
train and teach to be fabricators,” Isbister said. “If we could just
get those people to where the jobs are …” Isbister gathered Tuesday
morning with other local business owners, county officials and
stakeholders from Grafton, Cedarburg, Mequon and Port Washington to
discuss the ways Ozaukee County’s transit services could help with
this issue. The meeting at the Milwaukee Area Technical College
Mequon campus was part of an ongoing effort by Ozaukee County and
the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission to draft a
new five-year Transit Development Plan for the county.
Director Kevin Muhs said the project is happening in part to produce
a fresh plan for the Federal Transit Administration, which provides
funds to Ozaukee County – the county’s last plan covered 2002 to
2006 – but it is also being framed around a need expressed by county
employers for more labor and workers.
project is an advisory committee made up of stakeholders throughout
the county. Since its first meeting in December 2016, the committee
has reviewed existing services and evaluated the county’s Express,
which provides weekday-only travel to stops in Ozaukee County and
the city of Milwaukee during peak commute times, and the Shared-Ride
Taxi. These services are primarily used by people commuting to and
from work, according to information presented by SEWRPC. Roughly 99
percent of Express riders use it to commute to and from work, for
example. The evaluations included comparing those transit services
with “peer services” throughout the country.
A survey of
Tuesday’s meeting attendees showed that the majority of respondents
are struggling to fill positions and believe improved transit would
help. More than half of respondents said they believed their
employees would use a shuttle bus if it were reinstated.
presentation by Muhs, attendees broke into small groups to exchange
ideas about the “perfect system” and provide insight into the needs
and habits of their employees. Some of the talking points included
varying shift schedules and how they would influence service times,
the distance a person is willing to walk once they get off a bus and
the distance a person is willing to commute versus their expected
In his group,
Isbister emphasized the importance of soliciting feedback from both
employees and jobseekers. Muhs said in addition to employers, the
committee has involved nonprofits – like Interfaith Caregivers of
Ozaukee County providing transportation to riders in need of
physical assistance – representatives from area municipalities and
existing transit riders.
is seeking public input throughout the process. In addition to
accepting comments by phone, fax, email, mail and online through the
SEWRPC website, a public information meeting was held Wednesday and
another will take place at 6 tonight at the Ozaukee County
Fairgrounds in Cedarburg.
doing now, starting with these meetings, is starting the
conversation about what changes should be made, if any, and any new
services the county should consider offering,” Muhs said. He said
this could include looking further into employee shuttles and
potential changes to the taxi service.
committee will develop and evaluate alternatives for the Express and
Shared-Ride Taxi. These alternatives would address the performance
evaluation and unmet needs identified during the process. A
recommended improvement plan will be prepared and county’s Board of
Supervisors may consider implementing some or all of the
early in the process, Muhs said there seems to be a clear call to
connect Ozaukee County businesses with the Milwaukee labor market
through increased access.