By Tom Still

MADISON – The task of producing tech-savvy workers and managers for Wisconsin’s knowledge-based economy cannot be handled by any single institution. It will require partnerships between business, education and government – and, within that triangle, cooperation throughout the “K-through-gray” learning spectrum.

The latest example of fresh thinking in education is a proposal by UW-Stout to streamline transfer of credits for technical college students transitioning to a four-year degree, to create end-point or “terminal” degrees for tech college instructors, and to build upon a curriculum that already stresses technology transfer.

If approved by the UW Regents, the Stout plan would bring the four-year university system and the two-year tech college network closer together, produce more technically-trained students with four-year degrees, and boost the economy by meeting the emerging needs of business. It deserves strong consideration.

One of the surprising facts about the workforce in Wisconsin is that it’s not as well-trained as most people would imagine. Despite the fact there are 13 four-year universities in the UW System and 21 independent colleges and universities, the state lags slightly behind the U.S. average for adults with four-year college degrees. Less than 25 percent of Wisconsin adults have a four-year degree compared to more than 26 percent nationally.

That’s a problem because study after study links income to educational attainment. In its 2003 report, “Vision 2020: A Model Wisconsin Economy,” the Wisconsin Technology Council noted that Wisconsin ranked about 30th in educational attainment among the 50 states and 21st in per capita income, both below the national average. Nationwide, the mean income for people with a high-school degree only was $27,978, which rose to $35,103 for adults with a two-year associate’s degree and $51,649 for people with a four-year degree. People who hold masters, professional or doctoral degrees earned even more, on average.

The relationship isn’t hard to grasp: In an economy driven by the need for skilled workers, better trained workers are likely to find the better jobs. Conversely, businesses often make expansion or relocation decisions based on where they can find the right workers. In many industries, finding the right workforce is more important than land costs, energy reliability, transportation needs and taxes.

There is a chicken-and-egg dilemma to the equation, however. Which comes first: Businesses with good-paying jobs or the skilled workers and managers to run them? In the past, Wisconsin has lost some of its educated workers to other states (most notably, Illinois and Minnesota) because the good jobs were already there. Creating more college graduates may not, by itself, be a solution if they simply move elsewhere.

That’s where the UW-Stout idea comes into play, as well as a growing list of partnerships involving tech colleges, universities and business.

Tech colleges are underappreciated assets of Wisconsin’s educational system. They produce workers who are generally ready for business and who tend to stay in Wisconsin. They are attuned to the needs of business and adapt quickly to changing demands. What if those tech-savvy workers had more opportunities to continue their education? Wouldn’t that make Wisconsin more attractive to businesses that are searching for talent?

UW-Stout, located in Menomonie, has long been known for its targeted and tech-based approach to education. It is the only higher education institution in the United States to receive a Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award (2001) and its technology park is home to 48 businesses supporting 820 employees. The university proposes to solve, in a permanent way, the acceptance of technical college credits in the UW System and to thus create more graduates with four-year degrees. It will also work more closely with business to create just-in-time programs. With support from the Regents, Stout will make good on its word.

Across Wisconsin, universities and technical colleges are working together, whether it’s the manufacturing partnership in northwest Wisconsin, the Center for Advanced Technology and Innovation in Racine, or business incubators in northeast Wisconsin. Wisconsin has a high-quality workforce – and it can only get better by removing the barriers that keep tech college grads from continuing their education.

Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison.