Tech college system: Developing Wisconsin’s future workforce

    Weeks after his historic re-election as governor of Wisconsin, Scott Walker visited several technical college campuses throughout the state, emphasizing the System’s vital role in creating more manufacturing jobs in Wisconsin.

    But in addition to manufacturing jobs, the Wisconsin Technical College System (WTCS) is focused on working with business leaders throughout Wisconsin communities to provide advanced curriculum and ongoing training in a variety of industries important to the state’s economy.

    According to system president Morna Foy, WTCS is uniquely positioned to serve and develop individuals at every stage of their academic and professional careers. WTCS has helped deliver tens of thousands of skilled professionals to industries including manufacturing, but also engineering, business, information technology, health care, hospitality, tourism, culinary arts, food processing and renewable energies.

    Meeting many needs
    WTCS is divided into 16 districts, with 49 campuses and additional outreach facilities designed to work with local communities. Each year, WTCS serves more than 360,000 individuals seeking two-year associate degrees, technical diplomas and certificates.

    In addition to providing traditional classroom and online educational opportunities to Wisconsin residents age 16 and older, WTCS also offers customized business solutions and technical assistance to employers.

    “Our partnerships within the community are stronger and more important than ever,” Foy said. “It’s not just in manufacturing or IT where you would expect these partnerships. It’s partnerships with the Wisconsin Baker’s Association and food production facilities; it’s partnerships with local farms and hospitality institutions where we can learn from them and design our curriculum to become the best business solutions.”

    WTCS works with business to design its curriculum in ways that address real-world needs and meets with an advisory committee to reassess and retool the curriculum to determine effectiveness, Foy said.

    “This happens in each district and at the state level,” she said. “The system is a very well-oiled machine.”

    Custom performance solutions for business
    Waukesha County Technical College’s Center for Business Performance Solutions was established primarily to support local business growth and development through customized training, organizational performance analysis and restructuring expertise.

    “We work directly with businesses to position them for success,” said Joseph Weitzer, dean of the center. “There’s a greater demand among businesses for a more highly skilled workforce. We’re able to make a customized, high-intensity training program designed specifically around what our client companies need.”

    In the past five years, the center has served more than 35,000 workers from more than 1,200 employers in the Waukesha area. Client companies often come from manufacturing, education, government and the food service industry, reflecting Waukesha County’s industry mix.

    Similar centers exist at several of the WTCS campuses, each set up to serve the industries in their respective communities.

    Custom training for students
    Nicolet College serves a population of approximately 84,000 people in northern Wisconsin and has six technical labs dedicated to education and training in industries including automotive, welding, health care, graphic design and culinary careers.

    “Our region is comprised of a few large businesses and a lot of smaller businesses with fewer than 30 employees,” said Kenneth Urban, interim president of Nicolet College. “It’s our responsibility to serve all of them. We work very closely with Grow North, our region’s economic development corporation, to determine the needs of our community and respond directly with the services we offer.”

    The aging workforce is a growing concern among all employers in the region, but manufacturers have expressed significant concern, Urban said.

    Nicolet College has worked directly with companies to develop training programs and education curriculum for students in a variety of industries.

    In 2012, the college worked with local companies to identify a specific need for electro-industrial mechanics. They developed the curriculum with local companies and started offering classes in October.  Nicolet just graduated its first class in December of 2014.

    “Companies are impressed with the skills students have coming out of our programs,” Urban said. “They work with us on a continuous basis, and we regularly tweak or revise classes and curriculum to better meet their needs. Our industry advisors help us keep these classes on the cutting edge.”

    Nine out of every 10 graduates from Nicolet get hired immediately, Urban said. Approximately 88 percent are hired within six months, and some even see a 50 percent increase in salary after five years with a company.

    “Employers don’t make those kinds of commitments if the employees aren’t competent and meeting the needs of their employer,” Urban said.

    Similar successes have been seen with Mid-State Technical College’s stainless steel welding certificate. The program, offered at Mid-State’s Marshfield campus, takes about four months to complete, and some students receive job offers while still in the program.

    Milwaukee Area Technical College’s (MATC) Center for Energy Conservation and Advanced Manufacturing (ECAM) has worked closely with companies like P&H Mining, Caterpillar and Johnson Controls to establish a top-notch curriculum around advanced manufacturing, tool & die, CNC programming and energy.

    Dorothy Walker, dean of MATC’s School of Technology and Applied Sciences, says there’s no other lab like ECAM in the state.

    “Students here are training on state-of-the-art systems,” Walker said. “The whole reason for developing the center was to adequately meet the existing needs of local industries that need to upgrade their workforce or fill hiring gaps. Having the right facility and equipment to do that is important.”

    Measurable bottom-line impact
    In 2007, the Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance conducted a study that found the total economic impact of WTCS on the state was approximately $6.9 billion, or 3.2 percent of the state’s total output for the prior year.

    More recent data is not available, though Weitzer suggests that research indicates a better-educated workforce translates into more economic development opportunities as a whole.

    “In addition to increased salaries and spending opportunities for employees with more employable skills, businesses will locate to regions dedicated to workforce training and development,” Weitzer said. “The reality is that talent is our best investment, as businesses, as individuals and as a state.”

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