By Tom Still

LA CROSSE – In a statewide public-opinion poll conducted for last week’s “Building the New Wisconsin Economy” meeting in La Crosse, an eye-popping 87 percent of workers said they believed they would need more education and training to get good jobs in the future.

It begged the question: Where will those adults get that education and training if the delivery system lacks the capacity?

If the survey by Wood Communications Group on behalf of a number of media, business and education partners is on the mark, that 87 percent figure translates to a minimum of 800,000 adults taking at least one class.

That’s more students than are currently enrolled in the University of Wisconsin System (171,000), the state’s independent colleges and universities (54,000), and the technical college system (134,000) combined. Only by counting credit and continuing education enrollment in the UW-Extension (205,000) and continuing education students in the tech colleges (270,000) is it possible to count 800,000 students in some form of Wisconsin higher education today.

Does the survey mean the higher education infrastructure must double in size to accommodate a rush of scared, returning students? No. But it suggests policymakers must carefully plan for a 21st century education system that matches the needs of Wisconsin’s workforce and its economy.

Among the key educators who spoke at the Dec. 2 forum in La Crosse were Katharine Lyall, president of the UW System; Rolf Wegenke, president of the Wisconsin Association of Independent Colleges and Universities; Rand Key, executive vice president of the Wisconsin Technical College System; and Elizabeth Burmaster, state superintendent of public instruction.

They agreed that Wisconsin’s “K-through-gray” education system must reflect the realities of a changing world. Wisconsin needs knowledge-based workers to compete in the world economy, which increasingly demands goods and services produced at the high end of the scale. That includes manufacturing jobs, which have become increasingly skill-based, as well as technology and service jobs.

Burmaster said it all starts with the K-12 schools, which must produce students who are innovative, creative and able to function in an increasingly diverse world. Critical thinking, problem solving, team skills and a global perspective are also a part of a well-rounded education in the tech colleges, UW System and the state’s independent colleges.

“To the extent we can produce our output (of such students), we will be competitive,” Wegenke said. “It is at the core of what the New Economy is all about. It is intellectual capital that we need as well as financial capital.”

Also needed is a delivery system that better leverages existing resources. The success of private adult education programs is due, in part, to the fact that education entrepreneurs have figured out how to reach older students in a way that matches their needs and schedules.

More and better distance education is part of the answer for traditional educational institutions. But if you need to go back to school to learn the basics of using a computer, you’re probably not an immediate candidate for online education. Many students, especially those who haven’t been in school for a while, will look for ways to deliver education where they work, live and take part in their communities. The school may need to come to the factory floor.

That consumer-based approach should include making better use of public school buildings. Burmaster told the La Crosse crowd that half of Wisconsin’s 426 school districts have 1,000 or fewer students. As those smaller districts inevitably consolidate, they must find new revenue streams for their facilities – and new ways to pay for programming. Could adult continuing education, done in partnership with business or other institutions, be a part of the answer?

The demand for continuing education comes at a time when most public learning institutions are under financial pressure to deliver their traditional programs. Wisconsin educators at all levels must ask if today’s programming and delivery system meets the demands of tomorrow’s workers – and adapt quickly. The “knowledge-based” economy won’t wait forever for Wisconsin to change.

Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council and is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison. The Tech Council is a partner in the “Building the New Wisconsin Economy” series, which continues with five forums in 2004. See for more.