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Harvesting the ripening workforce crop

As commencement looms, technical colleges report most graduates are employed within months of wrapping up school

Thousands of college students across northeast Wisconsin will wrap up their education when they graduate from various two- and four-year programs this month, and many of those fresh graduates will be prime targets for employers looking to enhance their workforce.

But employers might want to act fast, and be prepared to aggressively compete in the harvest of this new workforce crop. A recent report from Fox Valley Technical College in Appleton indicated 94 percent of its 2015 graduates were employed within six months of graduation, its highest graduate placement rate recorded this century.

Other schools across the region boasted similar employment performance from last year’s graduates. Both Green Bay-based Northeast Wisconsin Technical College as well as Moraine Park Technical College in Fond du Lac reported a 93 percent employment placement rate for its 2015 graduates.

As the workforce in northeast Wisconsin continues to tighten, employers seem to have greater appreciation for the technical skills – as well as the softer skills – that recent technical school graduates deliver as an employee, said Chris Matheny, vice president and chief academic officer for instructional services at Fox Valley Tech. One leading reason, Matheny said, is that technical college graduates from northeast Wisconsin are often prepared to transition seamlessly from the classroom into their new professional position.

“The speed to market for these individuals to get accustomed to the organization is rather fast,” Matheny argued.

That’s partly due to the close working relationship Fox Valley Tech and other colleges have with area employers to respond to their specific workforce requirements, Matheny said.

For local employers hoping to fill open positions with the crop of spring 2016 graduates, the landscape can be particularly competitive, depending upon the industry.

According to the most recent reports for 2015 graduates from the three aforementioned technical colleges, the average starting wage for these graduates is from $17.40 to nearly $19 an hour. Starting compensations vary by profession, and often has more to do with supply and demand than the actual amount of training required.

Matheny said one recent conversation with a northeast Wisconsin trucking firm revealed the company is starting its new drivers at $65,000 a year. Fox Valley Tech’s certificate program for truck drivers prepares them to be hired for such a job with just 12 weeks, Matheny said.

Keeping it in the area

One constant workforce and economic development concern during the past couple of decades is the notion of the so-called “brain drain,” the idea that the number of graduates educated and trained in northeast Wisconsin who move away from the region after graduation exceeds the in-migration of educated young professionals with post-secondary degrees.

While data often supports some truth to these claims, technical colleges typically demonstrate a high number of graduates working and living in the area years after graduation. The most recent Graduate Follow Up report from Northeast Wisconsin Tech indicated 71 percent of its students matriculating in 2015 are employed within the district. Those numbers are often higher within individual degree programs.

At Moraine Park, nearly all 99 of its 2015 nursing graduates were employed within six months of graduating, with nearly every one working for a health care employer between Fond du Lac, Milwaukee and Madison, which represents much of the school’s service territory. A total of 96 of those students passed their state licensing board certification exam on the first attempt, said Marylou Mercado, associate dean of nursing at Moraine Park.

But even though so many of these former nursing students are now actively employed as health care professionals so close to where they attended school, their service barely fills the gap in workforce demand. According to Mercado, there were still more than 400 nursing and nursing assistant job openings with the Moraine Park district on the job posting site as of late April.

Mercado notes this isn’t a trend just occurring in Fond du Lac, or a trend occurring for just a few years until there’s a workforce correction – the current volume of nursing graduates from all higher education institutions in the state still leaves a deficit in demand coupled with those existing nurses looking to retire in the next few years.

“There are going to be about 3,000 nurses a year needed to provide care to our aging population here in Wisconsin,” Mercado said.

Nurses are often staying in the area to work, Mercado believes, because of the close relationship Moraine Park’s nursing program has to health care providers within the communities where it trains it students. Many of the students are hired by those health care facilities, and Mercado said a number of those employers offer tuition reimbursement benefits encouraging those new employees to pursue baccalaureate and master’s-level degrees, providing further incentive to remain in the area.

Fox Valley Tech’s Matheny said the mission of many technical colleges is to “maximize the skills of people living in the area,” which relates to the high ratio of graduates remaining nearby to work after completing their studies. In the case of Fox Valley Tech, the average age of its students varies from year to year in a range between 25 and 28 years old, Matheny said. At that age, a number of students might have already sprouted roots in northeast Wisconsin – purchased a home, married, have children, or started a career.

“Many of our students have already made the decision to live in this area,” he noted. “Many have already established community connections.”

Show me the money

As mentioned earlier, the average technical college graduate is landing a job in northeast Wisconsin paying a salary between $35,000 to $38,000 a year.

But some professions are much higher, according to the various graduate follow-up reports issued by the New North region’s technical colleges. The average starting salary for the previously mentioned 2015 cohort of Moraine Park nursing students was nearly $49,000 a year.

Northeast Wisconsin Tech’s popular electrical power distribution program reported a median annual salary of nearly $57,000 for its nearly three dozen 2015 graduates. With more than 150 jobs posted on Wisconsin TechConnect during the past year, the high demand for such a short supply of graduates is driving pay scales higher in a variety of utility-related fields.

Manufacturing fields of study also continue to produce graduates in high demand earning lucrative starting salaries across northeast Wisconsin.

The automation engineering technology program at Northeast Wisconsin Tech reported an average salary of $48,000 a year for its 11 graduates in 2015. Moraine Park’s mechanical design technology program graduates were earning an average salary of $50,000 as of the school’s 2014 report.

Across the region, technical colleges reported high employment placement and salaries for careers in information technology, transportation, health care and construction. Each of those segments offered plenty of entry-level job openings throughout northeast Wisconsin and across the state.