Training tomorrow's workforce

Business education partnerships forge creative solution to skills gap

Story by Jessica La Plante-Wikgren

A SKILLED-LABOR SHORTAGE caused by a sharp rise in retirements is a fast-approaching reality that lies just beyond the horizon. Temporarily obscured from view by the economic downturn, the problem is expected to take on an urgent dimension in the near future, as soon as the economy turns the corner and retirement portfolios recover. 

Economic development officials are predicting that the first wave of baby-boomer retirements will hit home about two years after the economy recovers, when the nation’s demographic shift will begin to change the face of the 21st century workforce.

Half of Fond du Lac county’s workforce is expected to retire within the next 10 years, according to the results of a 2008 study sponsored by the Fond du Lac Area Association of Commerce and Moraine Park Technical College. Given the size disparity between the population of K-12 students and retiring baby boomers, the data reveals an alarming trend: unless business and education leaders team up to put students on a fast-track toward skilled occupations and high-tech jobs at local companies, there won’t be enough young people entering the workforce in the next decade to replace the veteran talent that will be leaving at an unprecedented rate.

If the economic downturn has brought business owners and educators any blessing in disguise, it has been the grace of additional time to cope with the coming change. If anything, the tight labor market is giving both employees and employers time to prepare for the skilled labor shortage that lies ahead – a trend reflected by an increase in the growing number of companies bringing career outreach and occupational training programs to K-12 classrooms.

Giving area youth a head-start

GETTING HIGH SCHOOL GRADUATES into the workforce at a younger age is one strategy businesses and educators are promoting to soften the blow of the coming labor shortage. A 2008 “Retirement & Departure Intensions” survey revealed a skills gap of staggering proportions: 17,000 unfilled positions in Fond du Lac county alone by the year 2026 if something is not done to stem the tide of young people’s outward migration and an educational model that underplays the importance of “middle skills.”

The goal of 21st century workforce development programs is to help students find their career niches as quickly as possible, said Joe Reitemeier, president and CEO of the Fond du Lac Area Association of Commerce. That means rethinking the four-year education model and infusing skill-building and occupational training programs into the K-12 experience.

Traditionally, a four-year baccalaureate degree was the gold standard by which occupational success was measured. However, industry trends have forced higher education and K-12 educators to re-think that message.

Labor market data confirms individuals who “have a high school diploma and the aptitude for continuous learning – and who migrate to a technical college – have as equally valued opportunities for success as individuals with college degrees,” Reitemeier said. “We need to make sure that message is communicated on par with the message of success associated with a four-year college degree.”

The AC sponsors a variety of programs designed to help students at all grade levels learn about employers and career paths in their communities. For example, all Fond du Lac second graders receive a coloring book that provides a kaleidoscopic overview of specific careers at local companies.

“We’re specifically naming companies in the coloring book,” Reitemeier said. “We want to create in the mind of the second grader and second grade teacher that there are opportunities not just in manufacturing, but that there are opportunities at J.F. Ahern, Sadoff Iron and Metal or Mercury Marine. We want (them) to connect the company name to the career path.”

At the high school level, the AC operates apprenticeship and co-op programs that help students gain experience in their chosen fields while simultaneously earning academic credit and an hourly wage. This fall, about 100 students will participate in the programs, which span 16 occupational areas.

Apprenticeship and co-ops help students gain real-world experience without interrupting their education, a huge advantage in a labor market where new hires will be expected to hit the ground running.

Companies who responded to the AC’s 2008 “Retirement & Departure Intentions” survey said replacement workers who would be filling the shoes of retiring employees “would need to have at least the same level of skills that the departing employee possessed and, in many cases, they expected them to have higher skill sets,” Reitemeier said.

To get students thinking about which industry is the best fit for their skills and interests, the AC recently launched a youth leadership program. Once a month, students from eight Fond du Lac County high schools take a VIP tour of an industry sector, such as public safety, health care or public administration. 

For example, “we show them how all aspects of health care operates in the Fond du Lac market; we take them to the police and fire departments to understand how public safety is distributed as a service to its citizens,” Reitemeier said. 

Matching curriculum to career paths

LIKEWISE, HELPING TEACHERS form an accurate picture of career paths at local companies has resulted in greater occupational awareness among K-12 students.

The AC’s Business, Industry and Education Evening emerged as one solution to the problem of a disconnect between business leaders and local educators. In addition to sparking dialogue between employers and educators, this year’s event will include tours of businesses which will “give teachers a knowledge of what’s in the community, so they can pass it on to students,” said Mary Denzin, the AC’s director of educational partnerships.

Teachers will “walk through manufacturing facilities and look at equipment, wage and benefit (data) for that job, and the skills needed to operate that equipment,” Reitmeier said. “The teacher can take that practical knowledge back into the classroom (and say), ‘at this company, this is the kind of job you can have and the kind of earnings you can achieve.’”

Oshkosh also offers a potpourri of programs to help K-12 students scope out career prospects in their hometown communities. Career and Life Path Day and job shadowing are two programs that allow eighth graders and high school students to interact directly with the business community.

“The programs give (students) first-hand experiences in terms of what somebody in the health care field or manufacturing may be doing on a daily basis,” said John Casper, president and CEO of the Oshkosh Chamber of Commerce.

Years ago, manufacturing jobs “weren’t as highly technical or as highly skilled,” Casper said. “Now, with computer-aided manufacturing, you need to be very technically astute to competently do those types of jobs.”

In other words, modern manufacturing requires a mixture of blue- and white-collar skills. For young people who enjoy hands-on work that engages the mind, northeast Wisconsin’s manufacturing sector is a cornucopia of little-known, oft-overlooked job opportunities.

The chamber is using career exploration programs as a means of helping students align their academic majors with industry needs.

“From a skills shortage perspective,” the question weighing on the minds of workforce development advocates is, “(will) people entering the workforce have the skills that are necessary to take on the jobs that will be available?” Casper said.

The outreach programs also help students gain a better understanding of the mixture of soft and technical skills that local employers are looking for.

Employers “need to have people who are good critical thinkers – who have the ability to address and solve problems,” Casper said, adding that “anybody coming right out of high school or postsecondary school will have to be able to relate well to people at work (within) cross-functional teams.”

“It’s the softer skills – the big intangible – that employers are looking at,” Casper said. Those soft skills enable employees to adapt to change and keep pace with the global economy and technological advancement.

A second goal of Oshkosh’s business and education partnerships is to help K-12 educators better understand employers’ expectations and the skills high school graduates will need to contribute to the workforce.

Oshkosh’s Partners In Education program “is a forum where we have business people and educators meet and discuss curriculum issues facing the school districts,” Casper said.

Ultimately, the goal of Oshkosh’s business and education partnerships is to keep young talent in the community and to help local employers stay on top of their game – producing high school and college graduates who possess state-of-the-art skills, a well-rounded knowledge base, and a practical understanding of what it takes to succeed in modern industry.

“If we can reach out to kids and make them aware of opportunities here in Oshkosh and the (Fox River) Valley…that you can put down your roots in your home county and have a pretty good life here…there’s a real value to that,” Casper said.

Middle skills matter

IN RECENT DECADES, paving the road to occupational success meant attaining a four-year degree. Increasingly, educators and employers are recognizing “middle skills,” and sending a new message to youth that a technical college degree can offer an outstanding lifestyle  in fields ranging from information technology to industrial engineering.

Breakthroughs in technology have turned the blue-collar jobs of yesteryear into the high-tech jobs of today. Occupations that did not require any special training now demand a suite of versatile skills often acquired through technical college training.

Today, people are using “GPS and electronic equipment to do things that people in the past would have used tape measurers for,” said Jim Eden, executive dean of instruction at Moraine Park Technical College in Fond du Lac.

As a result, factory work is no longer manual labor but rather requires a combination of computer knowledge and critical thinking skills.

“The technology gains that society has had have enveloped all jobs and the skills required to do those jobs,” Eden said. “In order for us to compete around the world with a higher labor cost, we’ve had to make our employees more efficient. A simple way of doing that is using technology, (and) with that technology comes those higher skills.”

Mechatronics – using electronics to control equipment and machinery – has revolutionized manufacturing .

For example, “today it takes a lot of skills to be able to operate an electronically controlled CNC machine,” Eden said. “A rollercoaster in this environment is a very high-tech piece of equipment; it takes someone with a lot of ability to be able to maintain and repair a rollercoaster.”

Although the sluggish economy has temporarily curbed demand for skilled workers in shortage areas such as welding and CNC machining, the trend is only temporary, masking a long-term shortage that can only be solved by attracting more young people into the skilled trades.

A few years ago, “we saw a huge demand in the entire trade industry,” Eden said. Although “the slowing of the economy has diminished that demand, it’s not because we have enough people; it’s just because, (right now), no one is hiring. As soon as the economy turns around, the demand will be back.”

The fact that many skilled trade workers are nearing retirement age adds a new dimension to the problem.

“Even though manufacturing is a contracting industry, the rate of retirement is going to far exceed the contraction of the business,” Eden said. “Four to six years from now, I think we’re really (going) to see some significant challenges hiring middle-skilled people.”

In Wisconsin, “we’re at a big discrepancy between the skill sets of the employees and what businesses need,” said Josh Bullock, MPTC’s vice president of strategic advancement.

“Thirty-one percent of the workforce possesses a bachelor’s degree or higher and only 26 percent of the jobs require it,” Bullock said. By contrast, “54 percent of the jobs in Wisconsin require ‘middle skills’ training, while only 46 percent of the workforce has that training.”

Especially in the last two years, “we’ve been bringing the message about middle skills to many community organizations,” Bullock said. MPTC’s “goal has not been just to promote technical education, but also to promote the skill sets that students will need in the future to help our economy survive.”

By 2016, more than half of all jobs are expected to require middle skills. Although specific technical skills may vary from field to field, all “middle skills” occupations share certain competencies in common, including critical thinking skills, computer literacy, the ability to use problem-solving heuristics, leadership and teamwork skills and a basic understanding of scientific principles. 

Tech colleges take the lead

IN THE NEXT DECADE, technical colleges will play an increasingly important role in helping workers and employers adapt to change by bridging the skills gap, said Chris Matheny, vice president for instructional services at Fox Valley Technical College in Appleton.

As baby-boomer retirements and technological change create skill deficits in specific areas, technical colleges can help businesses adapt to change by connecting employers with highly trained graduates and by delivering customized training programs designed to meet employers’ exact needs.

Matheny said FVTC worked with 2,000 businesses across its district last year.

If a business needs “advanced manufacturing training – anything from management skills to very technical, industry-specific needs – we’re able to deliver on that,” Matheny said. “We have a trained faculty and access to industry experts, and we have an organizational commitment to doing that.”

In addition, FVTC can help employers tap training grants to more effectively leverage workforce development dollars, Matheny said.

During the past academic year, enrollment for all FVTC programs rose by 14 percent – a trend that is fueled by the economic downturn as laid-off employees retool their skills and high school graduates postpone employment to pursue degrees that ultimately will lead to higher incomes. In that respect, the economic downturn has given both employers and employees time to adapt to change and prepare for predicted skills shortages.

In recent years, FVTC has seen a huge increase in demand for engineers and skilled trades people, Matheny said, a trend that will become more apparent as the economy recovers. To encourage high schoolers to explore careers in engineering and technology, FVTC conducts a number of outreach programs.

For example, local high schoolers were invited to participate in a holiday lights program that integrated robotics and electromechanical design. A similar FVTC program encourages students to put their engineering skills to the test by designing functional “mini-chopper” motorcycles, taking a product from concept to design and execution.

By giving high school students an opportunity to test out their career interests in a real-world setting – before entering the workforce, FVTC has created an express lane to help students find their occupational niches faster.

“We really believe this is a great, reasonably-priced option for students to get started on their college careers,” Matheny said. “When they leave here, they have a skill set they can immediately apply in the marketplace. They’re in the marketplace quickly, and yet they have the option to move on (through) articulation agreements with four-year colleges.”

Jessica La Plante-Wikgren is a freelance writer based out of Green Bay. She previously worked as a feature writer and staff reporter for The Door County Advocate and the Green Bay News-Chronicle. La Plante-Wikgren can be reached by email at jlaplante@centurytel.net.