The county connect
Transit updates may aid local labor market

By Alison Henderson - News Graphic Staff

June 22, 2017

OZAUKEE COUNTY — 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.

With 60 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.

SEWRPC Deputy 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.

Guiding the 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.

Following a 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 pay rate.

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.

The commission 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.

“What we’re 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.

Next the 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 recommendations.

While still 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.