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Milwaukee positions itself as a water-centric city—a hub of innovation and investment in water technology and infrastructure, and an area rich in water resources that provide opportunities for recreation and well-being. Yet, Milwaukee’s water workforce does not reflect the diversity of its residents. To build a more equitable workforce, we must identify, understand, and address barriers to entry, particularly for people living in communities that face limited economic and social opportunities.
The Milwaukee Water Equity Taskforce was convened to explore pathways to a more equitable water future and inclusive workforce in Milwaukee. Its members represent a range of stakeholder interests—utilities, nonprofits, neighborhood associations, workforce development organizations, and educational institutions. 2018-2020 was spent investigating the factors that limit entry into the water workforce for members of historically marginalized communities and defining actions that can be taken to remove those barriers. This Water Equity Roadmap and the accompanying Needs Assessment are the outcomes of the Taskforce’s work.
In 2018-2020, the Milwaukee Water Equity Taskforce focused its efforts on equitable, living-wage employment as a priority for water equity. First, to better understand the barriers to equitable employment in Milwaukee’s water sector, Milwaukee Water Commons contracted with the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Center for Economic Development to undertake a comprehensive water sector Needs Assessment as part of the team process. National and local water sector research, interviews with selected stakeholders, and multiple community focus group discussions on barriers to living-wage employment in Milwaukee’s water sector augmented this assessment. The team also participated in monthly meetings, quarterly learning exchanges with the US Water Alliance’s seven Taskforce cities, and constant team communication and collaboration.
Water equity is about “just and fair inclusion,” when ALL people have a say in decisions that affect their lives. In the context of “water,” it means:
Notably, several efforts are already underway to advance water workforce equity in Milwaukee. The Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District (MMSD), in collaboration with Cream City Conservation and Employ Milwaukee, recently launched the Fresh Coast Ambassador program to prepare young adults in Milwaukee to enter the water workforce. MMSD has initiated an apprenticeship program along with “banning the box” on job applications—meaning that the applications no longer include questions about applicants’ criminal records. Milwaukee Water Works (MWW) is defining new partnerships to build a stronger pipeline for potential future employees, with outreach starting in grade school and extending through colleges and universities. MWW has developed a youth apprenticeship program to provide high school students with experience working in the water distribution and machinery repair programs. Partnering with Milwaukee Area Technical College (MATC), MWW welcomes interns from the Environmental Health and Water Quality Technology Associate Degree program to gain experience working in MWW’s treatment plants and water quality laboratories.
The Milwaukee Water Equity Taskforce recommends a call for stronger collaboration among all those in Milwaukee’s water sector and meaningful changes to workplace culture, policies, and practices. The Taskforce believes that advancing these recommendations will help ensure that the economic, environmental, and social benefits resulting from community investments in water are more equitably shared by all.