Among the greatest concerns for employers in Wisconsin is being guaranteed a workforce with skills sufficient to meet the needs of economic growth and technical advancement. While the state historically has been, and continues to be, one of the overall best-educated in the nation, it is also true that the demands of technology have never been greater, nor have those demands ever fallen on so many workers in so many sectors.
What’s more, it often is no longer enough simply to have once-upon-a-time earned a diploma, degree or certificate, now highlighted somewhere deep in a resume. The speed at which digital technology has overtaken basic skills has outpaced the resources of many employers to train people on the job. And for the worker who wants to get ahead – or even to land her first “real” job – more education may be the only answer.
With that in mind, all public institutions of higher learning in Wisconsin, and most private ones, offer a menu of accelerated degree and certificate programs, mainly aimed at adult continuing education. The coursework is taken in the evening or online (or both), and individual classes can be completed in six to seven weeks instead of the usual 16. With so much demand, the curricular offerings expand each year.
“This is a huge part of the conversation,” said Chris Layden, managing director of Experis, a division of Milwaukee-based ManpowerGroup, the world’s largest staffing corporation. “In order for you to have more relevance, you’re going to have to acquire more soft skills.
“But we can’t have curriculum development in a vacuum. It has to be a multi-stakeholder approach, with business, education and government all involved.
“Nursing is quite a model,” Layden said. “A few years ago, we realized we didn’t have nearly enough nurses. It was one of the most in-demand, least in-supply jobs. And in just two or three years, accelerated degree programs were filling the bill.”
That isn’t always the case, though.
“Another example was welding in metal manufacturing,” Layden said. “What happened was that as soon as traditional trade programs started to get up to speed, there was a shift to digital welding, an automated process with one person doing the job of maybe two or three.
“Those are people we can and must up-skill, to meet the needs of the fourth Industrial Revolution – the Digital Revolution.”
Advances in technology and necessary skills, Layden said, are no longer generational – they now occur multiple times within a generation.
“In some cases,” he said, “it’s only two or three years between advances where you may need a new certification – I would say there’s no more than a five-year horizon for the jobs most in demand.”
Besides regular Wisconsin institutions, Layden said, national and regional initiatives are contributing. He cited the Digital Manufacturing and Design Institute in Chicago, funded mainly through the federal government but involving Milwaukee-area businesses including Rockwell Automation Inc. and Johnson Controls Inc. and institutions including Milwaukee School of Engineering and the University of Wisconsin System.
“This is a national initiative,” Layden said, “and even the Department of Defense is underwriting it. The opportunity here is really significant.”
The University of Wisconsin System of 13 campuses began adopting online course studies only about 10 years ago, said Larry Graves, registrar and director of admissions for University of Wisconsin Colleges. By five years ago, Graves said, demand had grown to the point that more offerings and a more centralized approach were needed. Today, University of Wisconsin Colleges Online offers 35 accelerated degree programs, each based at a particular campus where evening, on-campus classes may be available, but also accessible online to anyone, anywhere. It’s all recently been pared down to seven weeks, where once it paralleled the semester system.
“It’s in collaboration with a four-year school,” Graves said. “You can be concurrently enrolled anywhere” while taking courses developed at the host school.
“It’s mainly marketed to adults,” Graves said. “It allows them to work while being in the online environment in the evening, and you’re done in seven weeks. It can be very broad-based, because we have mature technology – it’s not in its infancy anymore.”
Offline and in-person, University of Wisconsin adult programs span the state from University of Wisconsin-Parkside in Racine to Platteville in the southwest, and from Green Bay to Superior and even tiny Stout in the northwest. In fact, University of Wisconsin-Stout, in Menomonie, is host to five of those 35 system-wide accelerated programs.
Concordia University, a private school based in Mequon, focuses more on evening classes, where students get classroom face time with professors rather than screen time with graphics. To accomplish that, Concordia has developed nine satellite campus centers sprinkled across Wisconsin, with one more in St. Louis.
Tara Carr is director of Concordia’s Appleton center, but she previously directed the center in Beloit, and works closely with another in Green Bay. She’s seen both ends of the spectrum of continuing education needs.
“Appleton is a pretty unique community,” Carr said. “It’s affluent, and most people we serve are already well-educated and have sustaining jobs. A majority of our students are in the master’s of business program. Most of them are focused on getting to that next level. They cannot move on without that degree.
“Then I look at Green Bay. Up here, there’s a huge difference between our students (in Appleton) and those just 25 miles away. We have one of the largest graduate programs; they have far more undergraduates.”
Concordia’s programs can be completed in just six weeks, and in only one night a week, Carr said.
“Almost all of our students are employed full-time,” she said. “About 75 percent are women and, interestingly, the graduate-degree students are slightly younger on average than the undergraduates – 32 to 33 years old for graduate students compared to about 36 for undergraduates.”