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45th District candidate Rucker alone on skills gap

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GINA R. HEINE
August 9, 2012

— Three of the four candidates for the 45th Assembly agree area employers are facing a skills gap in hiring new workers. Blackhawk Technical College will play a key role in training workers to meet the needs of today's employers, the candidates said at a forum Wednesday night in Beloit.

Republican Russell Rucker stood out from his primary opponent Beth Schmidt and Democrats Janis Ringhand and Sheila De Forest in his response to a question about what can and should be done to deal with high unemployment while manufacturers are limited in their ability to find qualified, skilled workers.

Voters will narrow the field to one candidate from each party in Tuesday's primary.

"I really don't believe that we have a big skills gap issue," Rucker said. "What we have is massive unemployment that we have to address."

That's why he wants to lower taxes, he said.

"We'd get more money flowing in because people would be spending that money, we'd get more jobs back, and I really think that is the way to get our economy moving again," he said.

Schmidt disagreed, citing her conversations with employers in the district.

"We are having a welding profession decrease. They need welders," she said, adding the governor has a committee working on it, and BTC has plans to create a trades program in Beloit.

"We do need to get ready for this by training," she said.

De Forest said BTC's efforts to create an advanced manufacturing training center are part of the solution.

"This is exactly the kind of thing we need very desperately, especially in Beloit, and we need resources to make that happen," she said. "We have to get the resources behind it. That's the bottom line."

Ringhand said the skills gap is real, and she "strongly" supported the BTC center from the start in her current seat as the 80th Assembly District representative. She said she's talked to the governor and the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation about it.

In his rebuttal, Rucker said when he worked on a construction project at BTC three years ago, he saw about 30 students studying welding. That's one reason why he doesn't think expansion is necessary.

"We're already providing this," he said. "I don't see why another state program taking money away from taxpayers should be done."

A painter by trade, Rucker faces Schmidt, who is a server at Applebee's in Janesville. Both are members of the Orfordville Village Board.

De Forest, a social worker and teacher, is in her third term on the Beloit City Council. She faces Ringhand, a former Evansville City Council member and mayor who is finishing her first term in the state Assembly. Ringhand still lives in Evansville, but redistricting now puts her in the 45th.

Randall Upton, president of the Greater Beloit Chamber of Commerce, moderated the forum, which was sponsored by the League of Women Voters of Beloit and Rock County Youth2Youth at the Beloit Public Library.

The candidates also were asked about education, and here are their responses in the order given:

Q: What steps do you recommend to improve the overall quality of education in Wisconsin and the capabilities of students at the K-12 level?

De Forest: "We need sufficient funding to educate our students. We are in desperate need of reevaluating the way we fund education. It's not working right now. We need to get creative about how we're making sure we're meeting those needs."

Better career counseling for students also is needed, she said, to identify early the students interested in vocational/technical skills, where many good, family-supporting jobs exist.

Ringhand: She agreed, adding the technical skills need to be introduced at a younger age, possibly in junior high.

"That's something that I know economic development people are looking at to get that idea out there that skilled trade is not a dirty word," she said. "It is definitely a good job. That is something we need to address more strongly in our schools."

Funding also cannot be cut further, she said.

Rucker: He said the state spends more than $10,000 per student, or $200,000 for a classroom of 20.

"I don't see why we keep having to spend more and more money when we still get poor results," he said. "We have to be smarter about the way we spend money."

Schools are top-heavy, he said. Private schools operate for less than half what public schools spend, "and they (private schools) do a better job," he said. He said a statewide voucher program is needed and more local control of school districts.

Schmidt: She agreed with starting trades programs in junior high.

"Where the funding comes from, I think we need to be creative," she said, and give more control back to local districts, which the state is doing.

"Whether it's a voucher program, that district has to decide," she said. "There isn't one-size-fits-all in this."



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