Technical colleges help retool workers

In the aftermath of the Great Recession, the Wisconsin Technical College System has seen a sharp increase in enrollment at area colleges as workers seek additional skills to compete in the tough job market.

“The main enrollment increase is not only a response to the economy, but a response to the value of a technical education,” said Morna Foy, spokeswoman for the Wisconsin Technical College System (WTCS).

“Lifelong learning is now finally resonating with people and employers,” said Foy, who also credits enrollment growth to students’ desire for an immediate return on investment after entering a one or two year program.

The Great Recession prompted an enrollment bump for WTCS. The estimated full-time equivalent (FTE) enrollment in WTCS for 2009-10 is at 81,216, up 11.6 percent over the 72,786 FTE enrollment in 2008-09. An FTE enrollment is equivalent to 30 credits and may represent several individual students.

WTCS had 69,632 FTE enrollment in 2007-08 and 68,358 FTE enrollment in 2006-07.

The availability of federal assistance and increase funding through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) has helped displaced workers return to school to re-tool themselves for a new career, contributing significantly to the enrollment increase in WTCS.

“The interesting thing about technical colleges, like ours, is with such a variety of offerings people who want to stay in the field (are able to) or people can make a new start to pursue a dream,” said Kathleen Hohl, spokeswoman for Milwaukee Area Technical College (MATC).

The FTE enrollment at Milwaukee Area Technical College is estimated at 13,464 for 2009-2010, a 7-percent increase over the previous year.

In the wake of the Great Recession, students continue to gravitate toward health sciences and technology programs. MATC has seen an increase in two information technology related programs in addition to health care.

“(Average program completion) is 18-24 month if an adult has work experience in a particular field in business, information technology or technical programs,” Hohl said.

Need for nurses

Nursing continues to be a popular track for students at Waukesha County Technical College (WCTC) for both the associate degree in nursing and the nursing assistant technical diploma program. In 2009-10, WCTC saw enrollment in associate degrees rise 4 percent, with 7,261 students more than the previous year.

“We’ve doubled our certified nursing assistant (CNA) program to meet the needs of the community,” said Sandy Stearns, associate dean of nursing and interim dean of health at WCTC. “The CNA avenue is a good start (in the field), especially for dislocated workers due to the 5 to 6 week completion (period). The CNA is a pathway to the nursing career, and most students continue at our college or other universities to continue a bachelors or masters degree.”

Moraine Park Technical College (MPTC), with campuses in Beaver Dam, Fond du Lac and West Bend, has also seen a rise in enrollment in both their associate program in nursing and other health care related programs.

“People feel it (health care) is immune from the cuts that we have seen in manufacturing related jobs,” said Dan Ensalaco, vice president of institution and academic affairs at MPTC.

MPTC estimated a 12 percent increase in FTE enrollment in 2009-10. Josh Bullock, vice president of strategic advancement, projects 3,699 FTE enrollment in 2010-11.

Programs for dislocated workers

In 2009, the U.S. Department of Labor expanded the funding for Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA) programs available to dislocated workers from $220 million to $575 million as part of the federal economic stimulus package.

As a growing number of displaced workers enter the workforce, only those receiving government assistance are identified in the Wisconsin system. According to WTCS, in 2008-09 a total of 3,739 students were served using federal worker training funding.

While the 2009-10 system figures have yet to be released, Gateway Technical College has identified 745 students enrolled in their programs.

According to Zina Haywood, executive vice president and provost at Gateway Technical College, 78 percent of dislocated workers enrolled in 2009-10 are continuing to pursue associate degree programs and the rest are pursuing technical diplomas. Gateway, which saw a 16 percent estimated increase in FTE enrollment, again expects continued double-digit growth in 2010-11.

All of the area’s technical colleges have expanded services to support the influx in dislocated workers. MPTC has expanded seats in basic computer courses in addition to offering walk in services, short classes and lunchbox course services for students.

“The services needed by dislocated workers are different than the traditional student,” Ensalaco said. “With their special needs we need to change our approach, there is a strong need for rudimentary computer skills.”

The college has also implemented Integrated Basic Education Skills Training (I-BEST), a teaching model that integrates basic education and skills training for dislocated workers that are taught at the same time.

“(I-Best) is short-term training that deals with the reality that workers can’t take a long period off of employment,” Ensalaco said. The short-term programs, in close operation with the area job centers, have allowed displaced workers to pursue careers in welding or culinary arts and gain employment upon program completion.

Prior to the recession, Gateway began working with area employers, the Racine Workforce Development Center and the Kenosha County Job Center in 2004 to create a 14-week CNC Boot Camp certification program, to re-skill the area’s dislocated or underemployed workforce.

“(CNC) is a rigorous program. Eight hours a day with 40 hours per week, we simulated the job environment that the employers asked for,” said Debbie Davidson, vice president of workforce and economic development at Gateway. “People think that manufacturing is dead but there are still great jobs, well paying jobs that require more skills.”

According to Davidson, several participants continue into two year degree programs.

To date Gateway has operated 10 CNC Boot Camps. The college has replicated the model into other industries, offering a boot camp in welding and industrial machine repair. The model has also spun off into a Smart Career Restart Program offering workers short-term training in machine repair, CNC set-up technician, medical receptionist, telecommunication installation and logistics.

“We keep an ear to the ground for what employers are asking for and we have to be quick and flexible to respond to the needs of the community,” Davidson said.

Due to WTCS school’s aligned curriculum with area employers Foy expects WTCS to sustain record enrollment levels in the 2010-11 academic year.

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