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BTC proposing education center to fight 'skills gap' cited by employers

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JAMES P. LEUTE
December 10, 2011
— A shortage of qualified workers could be the main hindrance for Rock County employers who’ve indicated that they plan to expand their operations or introduce new products in the near future.

That’s an early finding of a two-year survey of local companies by Rock County 5.0, a five-year public/private economic development initiative designed to reposition and revitalize the county’s economy.


“The same things we’re hearing locally about the skills gap is what we’re reading about nationally,” said James Otterstein, Rock County’s economic development manager.


Since early 2010, Rock County 5.0 has been meeting with the leaders of 100 county companies who employ more than 10,000 people. The goal has been to compile as much information as possible about industry needs for both the short and long terms.


A final report will be issued early next year, but Otterstein said Friday the findings are becoming clear: Growth and expansion is planned but only if employers can recruit workers with the needed technical skills.


Blackhawk Technical College is aware of the skills gap and is working to reduce it, BTC President Tom Eckert said Friday at a meeting of local employers.


The session’s purpose was to get employers’ input on their workforce needs and how BTC can help.


Eckert unveiled one idea, the creation of an off-campus “Advanced Manufacturing Training Center” that would change the face of the area’s technical education offerings, particularly as they relate to local manufacturing.


The proposal is still in a formative stage, but Eckert said BTC has partnered with the Beloit-based Hendricks Development Group to renovate about 80,000 square feet of the Iron Works complex in Beloit.


BTC will raise private money to create about 65,000 square feet of lab space and 4,000 square feet of classrooms for BTC’s manufacturing-related programs. BTC will then lease the space from Hendricks.


The center, Eckert said, will be flexible and incorporate the latest in manufacturing technology for use across several programs.


One thing it won’t do, however, is look like the stereotypical manufacturing plants of decades past.


“One of the images traditionally associated with manufacturing is that it’s dirty, dark and dangerous,” Eckert said. “We want to convince students that that these are clean, highly automated, good-paying jobs.”


That will be reflected in a portion of the center’s name.


“Advanced manufacturing” is an industry tag designed to capture the integration of technology and automation in the manufacturing process. In fact, the U.S. Department of Labor defines it as “the accelerated use of high-tech processes in the manufacturing plant.”


Eckert said the center will give BTC the space necessary to make the college’s program more relevant in a new and evolving manufacturing climate.


It also will draw manufacturers to the area and help those already here with their growth and expansion.


“The center, with its expanded training facility and state-of-the-art equipment and curriculums, will be a showcase ready to meet employer needs,” Eckert said.


Reaching potential students earlier in their education is critical in changing the image and meeting employers’ needs, he said, adding that the center will work closely with area school districts to develop career pathways.


Eckert said the pavers for those pathways can be laid as early as the sixth grade, and career decisions often are solidified by the ninth grade.


That means that if technical educators are to sell advanced manufacturing as a viable career path, it needs to be done earlier, he said.



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