When a local leader delivers on what he says he’s going to do, that’s worth acknowledging.

So take a bow, Tracy Pierner, Blackhawk Technical College president. Over the past year, he has solved both sides of the higher-education equation—reducing expenses by cutting administrative positions and increasing revenues by growing student enrollment.

Only a few months into his job last year, Pierner eliminated a $358,067 deficit by laying off 12 people in administrative positions and not filling six others. The expected savings this year will approach $1 million.

But he knew he couldn’t improve the college by merely cutting jobs. He had to improve the classroom experience to make a positive difference.

Next came Pierner’s vision for introducing on-demand education. When Pierner visited the Gazette Editorial Board in February, he explained his plan would allow students to take some courses at any time—no more waiting to enroll at the start of a new semester. Students would be able to listen to lectures via computers from any location and then attend labs to apply their new knowledge.

Welding, a skill employers say is lacking amid a labor shortage, is particularly well suited for on-demand education. Program enrollment increased by 16 percent this year, while enrollment for the automotive technician program surged 86 percent.

After several years of steep declines, Blackhawk’s total enrollment increased by the equivalent of 36 full-time students this year, and we’re hopeful this bump marks the beginning of a trend reversal. In general, technical college enrollment dips during economic upswings and grows during downturns. (Enrollment jumped, for instance, after General Motors closed its Janesville plant in 2009.) The economy’s relative strength will continue to act as a headwind, but companies’ appetite for skilled workers should create growth opportunities for Blackhawk.

The Wisconsin State Journal featured last month a series about the state’s labor shortage, highlighting employers’ frustrations in trying to find qualified candidates. The problem is only expected to worsen as 65-year-olds are projected to outnumber 18-year-olds by 2023.

“We are right at the brink of the crisis,” Ann Franz, director of the Northeast Wisconsin Manufacturing Alliance in Green Bay, told the State Journal. “There just aren’t enough human beings in Wisconsin with baby boomers retiring. Just driving down the road there are constantly signs hiring.”

To survive this demographic storm, the Wisconsin economy must do two things: keep young people in this state and offer them more skill-building opportunities.

Under Pierner, Blackhawk Technical College has been aggressively recruiting high school graduates, and the college has a solid partner in new Janesville School District Superintendent Steve Pophal. Pophal has been emphasizing career preparation as one of his objectives. One district goal is to have 90 percent of graduates completing coursework such as the type offered by technical schools.

By coordinating their efforts, Pophal and Pierner can establish an enrollment pipeline between the Janesville School District and Blackhawk Technical College, ensuring that students who decide against attending a four-year college get the guidance they need to establish fulfilling careers.

Most educators believe in the importance of providing a quality education, but they don’t always know how to accomplish it. Pierner has shown he understands Blackhawk’s challenges and, more important, knows how to overcome them.

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