Flexible Option will allow students to earn college credit by demonstrating knowledge they have acquired through coursework, military training, on-the-job training and other learning experiences. Students will make progress towards a degree by passing a series of assessments that demonstrate mastery of required knowledge and skills.
This fall, the University of Wisconsin system will be the first public university system in the nation to roll out a competency-based, self-pacing degree program.
Called Flexible Option, the program will focus on courses in the areas of greatest need for economic development, aimed at adults who already have some college experience.
It’s one of a number of steps the state is taking to make sure it maintains a capable, educated workforce that will meet the needs of businesses for years to come.
“We think it’s the wave of the future,” said UW System President Kevin Reilly.
The initial Flexible Option degree programs – Nursing, Diagnostic Imaging, Information Science and Technology and Technical Writing – were chosen with the needs of business in mind, Reilly said.
Wisconsin has one of the highest high school graduation rates in the U.S., in a range of 81 to 90 percent, according to various measures. The Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction has a goal of upping that number to 92 percent by 2017, and to increase college and career readiness from the current 32 to 67 percent of all high school graduates.
On college admissions tests, Wisconsin remained among the top in the country in 2012. At 71 percent, Wisconsin is tied with Iowa for second place in the number of students taking the ACT, according to the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction. The state’s 2012 composite score was 22.1, a full point ahead of the national composite score of 21.1.
“Wisconsin has a skilled workforce and a history of having a skilled workforce,” said Jonas Prising, president for the Americas at ManpowerGroup Inc., based in Milwaukee.
The UW system serves more than 181,000 students each year through 13 four-year universities, 13 two-year campuses and a statewide UW-Extension program.
In addition, Wisconsin is home to over 20 private universities and colleges, and a statewide technical college system of 16 campuses. Two of the Wisconsin Technical College System schools, Indianhead Technical College and Chippewa Valley Technical College, were ranked in the top ten in the United States in a 2010 national survey of community colleges by Washington Monthly.
Closing the skills gap
Even so, the so-called “skills gap” affecting businesses across the country is a reality in Wisconsin, too. Manpower has been involved in studying the issue and finding solutions.
Prising points to the health care sector’s effort to cure a nursing shortage as a success story.
“A decade ago they looked at demographic factors and started to increase classes,” he said.
Manufacturing companies such as Generac Power Systems Inc. are reaching out to high schools and vocational schools to attract young people, and the company is providing on-the-job training.
Generac, based in Waukesha, is working with the Waukesha County Chamber of Commerce in a “Schools to Skills” program that aims to interest high schoolers in manufacturing careers.
“We bring them to plant tours, show them design engineering jobs,” said Generac’s chief executive officer Aaron Jagdfeld.
Wisconsin tech schools also have initiatives underway to make sure that the state continues to provide a ready workforce for existing and prospective employers.
In Green Bay, for example, Northeastern Wisconsin Technical College is working with high schools to get kids excited about the possibilities of careers in today’s high-tech manufacturing jobs. NEWTC also creates training modules to meet the needs of area businesses, said Greg Flisram, director of development for the City of Green Bay.
Chippewa Valley Technical College, in Eau Claire, houses the NanoRite Innovation Center. It provides a nanoscience laboratory to help startups in the Northwestern part of the state.
In Southeastern Wisconsin, Professor Carmel Ruffolo provides a campus-to-company link between businesses and both the UW-Milwaukee and the UW-Parkside campuses. Ruffolo, head of corporate engagement and regional development for the campuses, sets up internships and connects corporations to professors.
“It’s not economic development as such. It goes way beyond that,” Ruffolo says of her role. “The universities have to be at the table.”