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WMC working to end workforce skills gap

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JAMES P. LEUTE
June 12, 2012
— "All the Walker photo ops are in factories, and it's like he doesn't get that manufacturing is the industry of the past. We need to be thinking about the future, about alternative energy, innovation and entrepreneurship."

To some readers, that quote in a November edition of the Capital Times was a slap at Gov. Scott Walker.


To an industry, however, it was a painful reminder that perceptions of manufacturing often are wildly different than reality.


"If you put that quote up in front of manufacturers, their heads will explode," said Jim Morgan, president of the Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce Foundation. "That speaker couldn't have been any more wrong in just two sentences.


"But it does show people's understanding—or lack of understanding—of manufacturing in this state."


That misunderstanding is the result of many things, said Morgan, who stopped at Blackhawk Technical College on Monday to outline what his organization has learned about a workforce paradox in Wisconsin, where unemployment stands at about 7 percent but manufacturers can't find the employees they need.


The paradox also is referred to as a skills gap, and WMC isn't alone in talking about it.


In Wisconsin alone, he said, there are seven regional economic development organizations, 11 workforce investment boards, 12 Cooperative Educational Services Agencies, 16 technical college districts and 426 K-12 school districts, and they're all familiar with the issue.


"One thing about Wisconsin is that it's very parochial," Morgan said. "How they do something in Fond du Lac is not how they do it Appleton.


"Given that, the problem is that all these efforts to address the problem don't line up."


Morgan and other WMC staff members have visited 54 Wisconsin communities and more than 300 manufacturers to get input. Morgan is sharing the results of those visits at each of the state's 16 technical schools.


Manufacturers are starting to question Wisconsin's work ethic, a quality that has long been heralded around the nation, Morgan said.


Social skills are a problem, and many companies now celebrate employee attendance.


Morgan said the state's technical college system would be a leader in tightening the skills gap.


But before that can happen, young students need to know that manufacturing today is all about innovation and entrepreneurship, he said.


"We do our students a disservice by not providing accurate data on the job market, current wages and the skills that are in demand," he said.


Labor data is often not communicated, and when it is, it's often wrong, he said, adding that too often students pursue costly four-year degrees only to discover they can't get a job.


Perceptions need to change, too, and Morgan said manufacturers must take responsibility for engaging their communities and local school systems and telling the story of modern day manufacturing.


"We need to get rid of the stereotype that manufacturing is dirty, dark and dangerous that people have been carrying around for 40 or 50 years," said BTC President Thomas Eckert.


BTC, he said, is working toward development of an advanced manufacturing training center that will consolidate its manufacturing-oriented program into one building and layer in the soft skills training that manufacturers say are too often lacking among graduates.


The school includes industry advisers for each of its programs and has held "skills summits" to gather employer feedback.


James Otterstein, Rock County's economic development manager, said an upcoming report would indicate that the vast majority of high school students in Rock County decide upon a career track in junior high. Most often, it's formed with the help of family and friends, followed by school personnel and Internet resources.


"Sixty percent indicate they intend to pursue a four-year degree, while only 20 percent say they will go after a two-year degree," he said. "There's a huge opportunity to hit these schools with accurate information about local labor markets."


Otterstein noted that manufacturing could be a tough sell in Rock County, which was devastated in 2008 with more than 30 plant closings.


"Locally, there was a lot of pain associated with manufacturing," he said.


Morgan said WMC will work with all stakeholders to ensure that every Wisconsin high school students has an open mind to available career choices and understands the opportunities they present.


In one year, WMC hopes to be part of a solution that includes unemployment of about 5 percent with manufacturers finding the employees they need. It envisions more employable workers, as well as a more positive attitude toward manufacturing and its role as an economic driver.


That's best summed up, Morgan said, in WMC's workforce vision: "Manufacturers have to tell it, parents have to allow it, educators have to know it and students have to choose it."



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