After 20 years as a manufacturing production supervisor, Joe Pinnow wanted to change jobs.

But the transition hasn’t been as successful as the 55-year-old Sun Prairie resident had hoped. In August he left a $70,000-a-year job only to find himself two months later driving for the ride-sharing service Lyft with no health insurance and dipping into his retirement savings.

For the past two months he has put in about 30 applications for management jobs with no luck. Many of the job openings Pinnow sees are for non-management jobs in the $12 to $14 an hour range — less than half what he was making. Recruiters tell him he wouldn’t be a good fit for them because companies know he might leave soon for a management job.

“It’s hard,” Pinnow said. “I can make probably as much driving for Lyft as I can for a $12 to $14 an hour job with no health insurance.”

The Wisconsin State Journal recently reported in its “Workers Wanted” series that employers are scrambling to find workers as unemployment dips to a near record low and the baby boomer generation retires in growing numbers. But just because job openings are plentiful doesn’t mean everybody who wants a job can find the job they want.

For mid-career workers like Pinnow, finding a job can be a challenge as employers look to younger workers with more up-to-date training and lower pay and vacation requirements.

Nino Amato, president of the Coalition of Wisconsin Aging Groups, said Pinnow’s predicament is illustrative of a growing problem for baby boomers still trying to work, but finding companies are letting them go or not hiring them because of reorganizations and cost-cutting measures.

“Part of it is a stereotypical thing of ‘Will they be satisfied in that job?’” Amato said. “Others have found it’s pure age discrimination.”

Amato said Wisconsin should look to a public-private collaboration in Minneapolis-St. Paul that connects older adults trying to find work or change jobs.

“Absent of corporate CEOs working with both parties at the state level, it’s not going to happen by itself,” Amato said.

Working with a disability

Whenever Wally Meyer and his son Bryce see the growing number of “Help Wanted” signs around Madison, it compounds their frustration about Bryce’s difficulty finding a job.

Bryce, 22, was diagnosed with a developmental condition similar to autism that affects his communication and social skills. Working with state and local programs that offer case management, placement and job shadowing services, he tried two retail jobs in recent years, making about $10 an hour. But he couldn’t secure a permanent job.

“From everything he was told he was doing a fine job,” Wally Meyer said of his most recent position. “When that expired they let him go, which is strange to me because they always have signs out saying they’re hiring.”

“Right now I’m just looking for a job, period,” Bryce Meyer added. “Anything.”

DeLora Newton, administrator for the Department of Workforce Development’s Division of Vocational Rehabilitation, said Meyer’s case was closed before he had secured a permanent placement, which was not supposed to happen. It has since been reopened.

While that may be an unusual case — the agency has found permanent jobs for 25,000 individuals with disabilities over the past six years — there are others with disabilities who haven’t accessed the state’s job placement services, Newton said.

“I think there are probably populations that could benefit that don’t know about us,” Newton said. “We’re trying to get the word out to employers about the great talent pool of employees we have.”

In highlighting the state’s looming workforce crisis, Gov. Scott Walker has encouraged all workers to “get off the sidelines” and has promoted programs to assist those with disabilities, prisoners and veterans. He recently declared October “Disability Employment Awareness Month” and noted the state’s vocational rehabilitation program placed 9,500 disabled individuals in jobs over the past two years.

Dan Idzikowski, executive director of Disability Rights Wisconsin, applauded Walker’s focus on helping those with disabilities, though he’s concerned about Walker’s effort to tie certain BadgerCare benefits to work requirements that don’t exempt those with disabilities.

“We need to make sure that we maintain the funding and support for individuals when they are truly unable to engage in competitive employment activity,” Idzikowski said.

Language barrier

can be a challenge

Katerin Guerrero, 24, a refugee from Honduran gang violence who moved here in 2012, said she sees many companies advertising job openings in Madison, but few willing to hire someone with limited English proficiency.

Guerrero has taken jobs in laundry service for $12 an hour, in a factory making $9.50 an hour and most recently in a bakery making $11 an hour. However she quit the most recent job because she wasn’t making enough to pay her bills, which between rent, food, car payments, child care for her three-year-old daughter and health insurance total about $1,390 a month.

Guerrero now makes about $1,500 a month working for a frozen food company 35 hours a week. The single mother is studying English, caring for her terminally ill mother, who moved here 15 years ago, and trusting in God that everything will turn out fine.

“I feel stress all the time; other times I’m angry,” Guerrero said. “I want more money for savings for the future. But I need to pay rent. I need to pay bills. I need to buy stuff for my baby.”

In her various jobs, Guerrero’s income has fallen below the threshold the United Way has identified as a survival wage, or $54,804 for a family of four and $31,200 for parent and child. A State Journal review of Job Center of Wisconsin data in August found more than half of the jobs that listed a low-end pay range fell below that threshold.

Deedra Atkinson, executive vice president for community impact and strategy at the United Way of Dane County, said the organization is pushing employers to offer workers at least $15 an hour. She disputes the criticism from opponents of raising the minimum that raising wages will result in job losses.

“If we had $15 an hour, oh my god would it make a difference,” Atkinson said. “It would take people off of benefits. Would it be the doom and gloom of people losing jobs? Our retrospective looking at other communities was no, that doesn’t happen. People don’t lose jobs because of that. They’re able to get into family sustaining work.”

Black worker struggles

African-American workers also have faced challenges during the economic recovery. The Center on Wisconsin Strategy’s latest “State of Working Wisconsin” report found while overall unemployment in 2015 was 4.6 percent, for black workers it was 11.6 percent.

In 2015, black median household income was $29,223 while white median household income was $58,232. The black labor force participation rate was 61.2 percent compared with 67 percent for white workers, which the COWS report found was the second-largest gap in the country just ahead of Illinois.

The Rev. Alex Gee, founder of the Nehemiah Center for Urban Leadership Development, said part of the problem is that companies don’t know how to connect with workers in the black community. The lack of outreach has led to talented, educated black people moving to other states with better opportunities, while black people trapped in generational poverty remain in Madison and Milwaukee.

“I don’t think employers are aware of some of the atmospheric changes they need to make to be welcoming to women and people of color,” Gee said. “They think if they have an opening, people will come. It doesn’t quite work that way.”

Gee pointed to the case of Harry Hawkins, 38, who moved here with his family from Atlanta in 2012 to take a job as a jewelry store manager, but eventually found himself out of work and struggling to find a management job despite having 10 years experience and a bachelor’s degree from the for-profit Colorado Technical University.

Hawkins said he was initially successful, tripling a poorly performing store’s profits in the first year and making $81,000 annually. But in management meetings he would challenge the directives from supervisors and left in May 2015. After that he lost a sales job and couldn’t land another management position.

Hawkins finally took a job as director of operations for Gee’s Justified Anger Coalition making about $50,000. He sees his experience as making a broader point about the still gaping disparity in unemployment rates among black and white people.

“There’s this idea that if you work hard, get your degree you’re going to be able to better yourself,” Hawkins said. “If this is an issue for an educated black man, then what kind of experience do you think someone who is formerly incarcerated, who doesn’t have a degree, who may not even have a high school diploma has?”


Matthew DeFour covers state government and politics for the Wisconsin State Journal.