Grow your talent pipeline with career-based learning

Manufacturers can be proactive in addressing skills gap

Seventh grade students from Golda Meir School get an up-close look at the manufacturing process at Waukesha Metal Products.

We’ve all seen the headlines about a widening skills gap and talent shortages threatening productivity. Employers report new graduates lack soft skills and students are unprepared for the jobs of tomorrow. In this environment, businesses are competing for the best and brightest from ever-shrinking pools of talent.

At Milwaukee 7’s Talent Partnership, our work is focused on connecting employers to their future talent pipeline and closing the elusive skills gap. U.S. manufacturing companies have faced a perfect demographic storm at the same time massive changes in manufacturing processes have raised the bar significantly on required entry-level skills.

Seventh grade students from Golda Meir School get an up-close look at the manufacturing process at Waukesha Metal Products.
Seventh grade students from Golda Meir School get an up-close look at the manufacturing process at Waukesha Metal Products.

According to the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development’s Bureau of Workforce Information and Technical Support, “an estimated 46,000 jobs could go unfilled in the state in the year 2022 due to labor force quantity constraints. There is existing demand for jobs in almost every industry, occupation and geography. In fact, it is the supply side of the equation that is holding back increased economic growth in the state.”

On top of that, we know manufacturing careers have an image problem. According to a recent Deloitte study, 90 percent of Americans believe manufacturing is very important to economic prosperity. If given an opportunity to create 1,000 new jobs in their community, a manufacturing facility tops people’s lists. We seem to understand manufacturing’s contribution to regional and state economies. However, only one out of three parents would encourage his or her child to pursue a career in manufacturing. Only half believe manufacturing jobs to be interesting and rewarding. In southeastern Wisconsin, we know that manufacturing jobs are high-paying, skilled careers with pathways toward significant upward mobility.

Recently, The Manufacturing Institute, in partnership with SkillsUSA and the Educational Research Center of America, conducted a survey to identify the biggest influencers in young people’s career choices. While students were influenced by the usual suspects: their father and mother (22 percent and 19 percent respectively), teachers (11 percent), social media (4 percent), and guidance counselors (3 percent), an overwhelming number of students (64 percent) identified personal experiences as having the greatest influence over their career decisions. The data suggests positive exposure and career-based learning experiences in manufacturing companies are bona fide skills gap solutions.

Unfortunately, direct experiences with local employers are rare. Fewer than 20 percent of the students surveyed participated in summer jobs, job shadowing and site visits, and fewer than 10 percent had completed internships, participated in co-op study programs or benefited from industry mentors. There is plenty of evidence career-based learning is the ideal setting to learn and apply real-world work ready skills. However, programs that combine on-the-job training with mentorships and classroom education fell 40 percent between 2003 and 2013. Today, youth unemployment rates frequently hover near double the national rate. Young adults are disconnected from the world of work and only 11 percent of employers feel new graduates are ready for work. It’s no wonder employers report candidates are not equipped with basic work ready skills – their education takes place in a bubble, divorced from the real world of work.

At Milwaukee 7, we encourage companies to apply the lessons learned from supply chain management to manage talent pipelines – by forging partnerships with education and workforce providers and by cultivating the right sources for future employees critical to the company’s growth and success. But the reality in such a tight labor market is that one company’s success attracting talent can come at the expense of another company. It’s a zero sum game.

In southeastern Wisconsin, it is essential that we grow the talent pool, reach young people earlier and introduce them to the world of work, increase the low labor force participation for young people, and retain young people in the region. Business can’t afford to wait for government or educators to produce a solution. The most successful companies will be those that engage a continuous pipeline of talent to fuel a long-term growth strategy. In the past, this type of strategy had often been overlooked in favor of short-term retooling and retraining efforts. What our region needs is a long-term and proactive approach to talent attraction, development and retention.

Career-based learning (also called work-based or experiential learning) provides young people with experiences in the “real world of work” where they can apply academic and technical skills and develop essential workplace skills critical to their future employment success. Career-based learning experiences range along a continuum, from career awareness activities like career fairs, plant tours and job shadows; through career preparation and pre-training activities like internships and apprenticeships; all the way to new-hire onboarding, mentoring and on-the-job skills development.

Career-based learning experiences help young people connect what they are learning in academic settings to the real world and practice navigating today’s workplace expectations. Students placed at manufacturing companies solve real-world problems on the shop floor, in real-time.  Young people with these experiences make better informed decisions about career goals and educational pathways and may be likelier to stay in a region that supports their aspirations. Career-based learning is also a low-risk way for young people and companies to “test drive” a potential employment match, and in many cases can lead to direct employment. The student you host today could be the machinist you hire tomorrow.

The Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce and its Council of Small Business Executives is taking the lead in offering seventh grade Milwaukee Public Schools students the chance to tour area companies and talk with employees at various levels within the company. The program, “Be the Spark,” has been running for three years and this school year will bring nearly 3,000 students into more than 90 businesses. Jeff Clark, president and chief executive officer of Waukesha Metal Products, also is chair of COSBE’s Education Committee.

“We are opening our doors and hoping to open the students’ eyes to the many possibilities out there,” Clark said. “It’s really the first step on the career highway. This tour could be the spark that ignites an interest that leads to an internship or apprenticeship.”

The educational landscape in Wisconsin is already responding to this call with the recent Department of Public Instruction mandate for Academic and Career Planning beginning in sixth grade for all students. Academic and Career Planning is a “student-driven, adult-supported process in which students create and cultivate their own unique and information-based visions for post-secondary success, obtained through self-exploration, career exploration and the development of career management and planning skills.”

Business and education partnerships and career-based learning experiences are critical to the success of ACP in Wisconsin. A state-purchased software called Career Cruising supports students’ career exploration and career awareness activities, while an add-on platform called Inspire is populated with profiles of regional companies promoting careers within their companies and opportunities for career-based learning. Employees within your company can volunteer to serve as online career coaches and answer questions on public discussion boards. Milwaukee 7 recently assumed the management of the regional Inspire Southeast Wisconsin deployment and we’re moving forward to leverage Inspire Southeast Wisconsin for our soon-to-launch GROW HERE campaign – designed to dramatically increase career-based learning in the M7 region and drive young people to careers in high-potential growth industries, like Next Generation Manufacturing.

GROW HERE’s goal is simple: by 2020, a cohort of at least 200 manufacturing companies in southeast Wisconsin will provide 200,000 company-based, career-based learning experiences to young people and their influencers: parents, teachers and guidance counselors. As a result, we expect to see improvements in companies’ time-to-fill for critical positions, quality of hire and first-year employee retention rates. Young people will understand the unique career opportunities in our regional labor market and choose high-potential, high-paying career paths in Next Generation Manufacturing.

GROW HERE companies will learn how to source partnerships with K-16 educational institutions and offer a range of experiences to students and their influencers, from plant tours to apprenticeships and co-ops, including training that goes on after-hire. Companies that engage in career-based learning not only make a difference in their communities, but they also make a sound business decision – and can give themselves an advantage in the fierce competition for future talent.

An ambitious campaign like GROW HERE requires “all hands on deck.” We welcome the contributions of a growing number of GROW HERE partners, including K-12 districts, technical colleges and four-year universities across the region; Next Generation Manufacturing industry cluster groups including The Water Council, FaB Wisconsin and M-WERC; the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp.; county economic development organizations; chambers of commerce; trade and professional organizations; staffing firms; employment specialists; nonprofits; and more.

-Susan Koehn is the director of industry partnerships for Milwaukee 7. For more information about the Milwaukee 7 Talent Partnership and the GROW HERE Campaign, see or contact her at

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