By Tom Still

APPLETON – At Fox Valley Technical College in Appleton, a
Health Simulation and Technology Center recently opened to help train medical
assistants, health information technicians and more. Eight new robotic welding
units are humming at the college’s Oshkosh campus. The college runs seven
automotive and truck training programs, an apprenticeship program for building
trades, an agricultural training center, a culinary arts program and an array
of offerings for advanced manufacturing careers.

So, what’s missing? Little more than recruiting enough
interested students – and finding enough companies willing to invest in them in
ways that will pay for everyone.

“The real issue in Wisconsin today is that we still don’t
have enough people with the right skill sets,” said Susan May, president of Fox
Valley Technical College since 2008. “As long as there is a mismatch between
skills and what employers need, we will have workforce shortages.”

Like other campuses in the Wisconsin Technical College
System, Fox Valley aspires to offer programs tailored to the economy around
them. Advanced manufacturing, agriculture, health care, logistics and
construction are staples in northeast Wisconsin, so it’s no surprise the
college is geared to producing students ready to work in those fields.

Not every high school graduate emerges knowing what he or
she wants to do, however. Only 23 percent of the high-school graduates in the
region eventually attend Fox Valley Tech – fewer still straight out of high
school. Many students aren’t aware of well-paid careers that require technical
training instead of a four-year college degree, May said.

“It should be closer to 70 percent (who attend technical
college) in order to meet the demand for skilled workers,” she said.

The push-pull between tech colleges and four-year colleges
is nothing new, but many Wisconsin employers say the shortage of skilled
workers is becoming more intense. Still, some of those employers seem unaware
that training programs that can meet their needs are often just a short drive
from their plants and offices.

Models for company engagement at Fox Valley Tech include a
technical academy at Appleton West High School sponsored by a handful of
manufacturing firms, a trucking program supported by Schneider National Inc.,
and an apprentice program for electricians that involves a partnership with
Faith Technologies. It’s no accident that 90 percent of Fox Valley Tech’s graduates
find a job within six months.

The story is the same across Wisconsin’s tech college
system, but there are still plenty of employers who think they can find the
workers they need by sitting back and waiting for the ideal candidate to show
up. That doesn’t always happen in a state where average wages are still well
below national and regional averages.

Proactive companies usually engage schools and invest in
programs that can keep their pipelines filled with skilled workers. They also
work to combat the image that careers in manufacturing or related trades are
gritty, back-breaking jobs. In most modern manufacturing plants, visitors are
much more likely to see computerized equipment and robots than piles of sawdust
and metal shavings on the floor.

Some trade associations are doing a lot of the matchmaking
themselves. The Wisconsin Automobile and Truck Dealers Association, through its
foundation, routinely awards scholarships and sponsorships to students pursuing
technical careers in auto and truck dealerships. The process often starts in
high school with evening programs that can lead to national certification for
students who want to work as auto or truck technicians.

“We really need businesses to hire more kids,” said Dan
Klecker, a just-retired teacher at McFarland High School who ran an auto
technician program for students from across Dane County. “It’s really amazing
how well it works when they do so.”

Many business owners and managers are getting creative in
meeting their workforce needs by investing now in workers as they train for
tomorrow. In an era when competition for skilled workers is high, those
companies are poised to win.