By Tom Still

MADISON, Wis. — In La Crosse, business leaders from Trane Industries, Mayo Clinic, Kwik Trip and more want the next phase of a thrice-rejected health and science center to be built on the UW-La Crosse campus. Why? Those companies and others need future students from the Prairie Springs Science Center to work in their labs, clinics and production facilities.

In Madison, 322 corporations and other major employers attended a three-day “career fair” in September to compete for upcoming graduates of the College of Engineering. More than 235 of those mostly large employers have operations in Wisconsin. Why were they there? To find and recruit talented workers from today’s limited engineering pool. A new building would accommodate about 1,000 additional graduates per year.

Businesses across Wisconsin see the connection between educating science, technology and engineering students and building a more resilient 21st century workforce. It’s time for the Wisconsin Legislature to pay closer attention to what those employers are telling them.

The $347 million engineering building proposed for the UW-Madison campus and the $180 million structure at UW-La Crosse are two prominent examples of stalled projects that have left many business leaders scratching their heads. Although topping the UW Board of Regents request list, they have failed to pass muster in the Legislature – despite evidence of business workforce needs and, especially in the case of the Madison engineering hall, private donor support.

The reasons why they have not yet been approved are complicated.

  • Is cost a factor? Perhaps, but waiting year after year only gives inflation a chance to eat away at private and public dollars alike.
  • Public universities in Wisconsin are under enrollment stress, depending on the campus, and some two-year centers will likely shut down. There may be a larger downsizing underway. But the Madison and La Crosse buildings would serve campuses with growing enrollments, especially among students with science, engineering and tech leanings.
  • Assembly Speaker Robin Vos is not happy with 189 diversity, equity and inclusion hirings at all UW campuses, which admittedly seems like a lot, but it’s hard to identify a direct link between those DEI positions and the buildings.
  • Are there other political barriers in the way? There aren’t any Republican lawmakers in La Crosse or Madison districts, which means there may not be a local advocate inside GOP caucus meetings.

In La Crosse, a community that has been disappointed in the past, the second phase of the Prairie Springs project would help a surprising range of companies, according to panelists and others who took part in an Oct. 18 Tech Council Innovation Network luncheon.

Mayo needs healthcare workers of all types, including in physical therapy; Kwik Trip wants technicians, food scientists and more to support a growing chain of 855 stores, and Trane Industries needs expertise to support its manufacturing lines in the La Crosse area and beyond.

T.J.  Brooks, the business school dean at UW-La Crosse, noted that students from his school would also likely take courses in the health science sequence. That’s because such students usually take far more credits outside their major than within it, mainly to become more well-rounded in a multi-disciplinary world.

“As business students, they want to be able to interact with students in health and science disciplines,” Brooks said.

The UW-Madison “Career Day” is an annual event where the number of job offerings far outnumber available students. The placement rate is about 92%, according to reports from previous years, and the average starting salary is $75,193 with a median of $72,000.

If the engineering building is constructed with private donations and state support, the pool of students would climb over time and provide more hiring opportunities for Wisconsin companies. Right now, the UW-Madison College of Engineering is the third smallest in the Big 10, despite being highly rated.

Workforce is emerging as a defining issue of the decade and beyond. Wisconsin needs to keep talented students at home, especially those in science, technology, engineering and mathemetics, and do a better job of attracting such students from elsewhere. Lengthy delays in building much-needed buildings in those fields doesn’t do the state’s businesses any favors.

Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He can be reached at