Upskilled Workers

Initiatives such as Wisconsin Fast Forward help businesses begin to bridge the skills gap by retraining incumbent workers and enhancing the skills of the next generation of employees

Story by Rick Berg

September 2017

It’s not like Services Plus founder Marvin Schumacher schooled his boys, Mike and Tom, on how to milk government programs to boost the company’s success. In fact, in its first 30 years in business, the Green Bay-based specialty packaging manufacturer had never participated in any state or federal incentive program.

That all changed in 2014, when Services Plus – like many of its business brethren – stared straight in the eye of a looming and increasingly more daunting employee skills shortage. At that point, a newly funded state program called Wisconsin Fast Forward came along with the promise to help businesses upgrade the skills of their incumbent workers and create the skills needed in the future workforce. Somewhat reluctantly, second-generation owner Tom Schumacher went all-in.

“I’m generally extremely skeptical of government programs, because they always come with strings attached,” said Schumacher, who retired as president of the company in 2014, but continues to serve as chairman of the board, as well as vice president. “In 30-plus years, this is the first government money that Services Plus has received, so it’s not like we are out there in line for every program available. It has to make business sense.”

So far, so good on Wisconsin Fast Forward, according to Schumacher.

“What appealed to me with Fast Forward is that it is very well structured,” Schumacher said. “It has all the incentives in all the right places for employers, for employees and for the technical colleges. It establishes expected criteria for the expected outcomes and the steps to get there. We’re all incented to do what we should be doing in the first place.” 

Wisconsin Fast Forward won more plaudits when the state Department of Workforce Development stepped up to help train diesel technicians at Hartland-based JX Enterprises, which operates 19 Peterbilt dealerships, including over-the-road truck sales and service centers in Green Bay and Appleton.

“Industry-wide, there’s a prediction that trucking businesses will need 67,000 additional diesel technicians in the next 10 years just to replace retiring workers, and only about 3,500 enter the workforce each year through the tech schools,” said Richard Yezzi, vice president of human resources at JX Enterprises. “We were facing a significant shortage of diesel technicians, but everything came together when we learned about the Fast Forward grants. It was a perfect storm.”

The state issued JX Enterprises a grant of $235,000 to train 36 incumbent workers and 12 new hires as certified Peterbilt diesel mechanics. The grant expires at the end of this year, but Yezzi said the company has already trained more than the 48 employees allotted and will continue the training program at its own expense.

“There’s a sunk cost in getting something like this going, so we were able to use the grant dollars to get it off the ground,” Yezzi said.

Nimble and accessible

For Georgia Maxwell, deputy secretary at the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development, March 2013 represented the best in state governance. Although the State Capitol had been embroiled in ongoing protests and partisan debate since the 2011 Budget Repair Bill was introduced and passed, the state Senate and Assembly both overwhelmingly approved the Wisconsin Fast Forward legislation that provided worker-training grants and created a state Office of Skills Development in the Department of Workforce Development.

“It came at the tail end of all the protests – the Capitol was under siege, there was total mayhem and chaos, but that bill passed overwhelmingly,” Maxwell said. “It really brought Egypt and Israel together, if you will. That was really special to me, also, because we haven’t traditionally gotten much worker training funding from the state. Typically, that funding comes from the feds. So that shows how important it was. For the legislature to approve millions of dollars for this was truly awesome.”

Rita Atkinson, who now heads the Office of Skills Development in Madison, said supportive comments like Schumacher’s and Yezzi’s have been typical in the three years the Fast Forward program has been in effect, as evidenced by the number of grants applied for and approved.

“We have had 226 grants issued already and trained more than 20,000 employees (statewide),” Atkinson said. “More than half have been in manufacturing – 54 percent – and 23 percent in health care.”

Business leaders like Yezzi and Schumacher have been especially appreciative of the ease with which the program is administered, which falls right in line with the original intent, according to Maxwell.

“It’s very easy to administer,” Yezzi said.

“I was sitting in the room when this idea was first discussed in late 2011,” Maxwell said, “and we knew from talking with employers that they were having a very hard time in filling job openings. This came from every corner of the state and every industry, and they were also telling us that the training programs that existed were not working quickly enough to meet employers’ needs. That told us that we needed something that was demand-driven, and that was nimble enough to respond quickly to employers’ needs.”

The original structure of the Wisconsin Fast Forward program was designed to fit that requirement, but was still less nimble than Maxwell, Atkinson and their staffs preferred. As a result, the program has been streamlined to include a rolling application process that will further reduce the time between grant application and approval.

“A lot of people don’t know how to apply for government grants. They’re too busy running their business to spend a lot of time filling out bureaucratic paperwork,” Maxwell said. “So, we’re offering technical assistance so if there’s a hiccup along the way, we can avoid delays and help them fix the holes in the application.”

Partnering with tech colleges

The state’s technical colleges have, not surprisingly, become a key linchpin in the Fast Forward process. Dale Walker, director of business and industry services at Fox Valley Technical College in Appleton, said individual grant recipients, like

JX Enterprises, often enlist the technical colleges to provide the training – either onsite or on the college campus.

In other cases, the technical colleges are part of an expanded regional partnership to provide multi-company training. One of the largest WFF grants to date was $229,000 awarded to the Fox Valley Workforce Development Board to partner with FVTC and 11 regional companies to train up to 54 incumbent production workers in FVTC’s newly designed Industrial Maintenance Certificate program.

Those companies – which included employers as diverse as Arrowhead Conveyor Corp. and Hoffmaster Group in Oshkosh and McCain Foods USA in Appleton – asked FVTC to design a program to increase the skill level of their electro-mechanical technicians on a schedule that fit with their ongoing employment. Trainees were paid by their employers to attend classroom training once a week for eight hours over the course of two semesters.

“It’s a really powerful tool for those employers to fill a critical skills gap,” Walker said. “The programs that we have helped develop and been a partner in have typically been focused on upskilling current talent in these organizations. They’re not finding the critical skills they need out in the job market, so they identify high-potential individuals in their organizations and then train them to take higher skilled positions in their company.”

In a similar case, the Bay Area Workforce Development Board recently received a $110,954 grant to partner with the Northeast Wisconsin Manufacturing Alliance and Northeast Wisconsin Technical College to train 74 incumbent workers in machine operator training at 18 companies, including Schumacher’s Services Plus, as well as other leading manufacturers such as Tufco in Ashwaubenon, Georgia-Pacific in Green Bay and EMT International in Hobart.

Manufacturing Alliance Director Ann Franz said the program addresses a top priority for many of her manufacturing members.

“It really came out of our Alliance task force work and a survey of our manufacturing membership, which helped identify the pain points for those members,” Franz said. “What they were telling us is that they needed to increase the mechanical aptitude and the troubleshooting skills of their production workers.”

Schumacher was among those manufacturing leaders looking for the kind of training now provided by NWTC through the state grant.

“We have machine operators and we wanted them to acquire some mechanical expertise so they could take on some of the more routine maintenance tasks that would normally require a maintenance call,” Schumacher said. “For example, on our shrink-wrapping equipment, you end up with some degree of plastic accumulating on the equipment and that needs to be cleaned off. We weren’t trying to make maintenance technicians out of them, but we were trying to increase their expertise so they could be more effective machine operators, anticipate some issues and do some fine-tuning to help the equipment run better, rather than having to call someone in or run the equipment until it failed.”

Investment in the workforce

Ever the government program skeptic, Services Plus’ Schumacher nonetheless appreciates the rare opportunity that Wisconsin Fast Forward provides.

“From a business owner’s standpoint, what appealed to me about Fast Forward was that it requires an investment in education and skills development, and that’s good from both ends,” Schumacher said. “We have a shortage of skilled people in our workforce and this helps fill that need for us as employers. We also have some people in the workforce who may never have considered themselves as having the potential to develop into these more skilled positions, so this gives them some upside they might not otherwise have.”

Yezzi agreed, noting the Fast Forward grant helped JX Enterprises create a program that meets the needs of the company and its employees.

“It has allowed us to really develop our people and fill jobs we wouldn’t otherwise be able to fill,” Yezzi said. “We’re able to bring them in and help set them up in a pretty lucrative career. That’s probably the biggest benefit that we’ve seen, and the fact that we can continue this into the future is exciting for me. That’s one of our key drivers – to build sustainable programs to help our employees grow.”

“The other thing I liked about the program is that the state will only give you the money if you give the employees a raise at the end of the training,” Schumacher said. “I think that is fantastic, because it requires an investment. It’s very easy to stick your hand out and take money that’s gifted to you, but it’s a different thing if you have to make an investment. With Fast Forward, there are two investments. One is that the program requires the company to provide matching dollars for the grant. The other is that you are required to give those employees a raise. In my mind, no sane employer is going to make those investments unless the employee is worth more, so it’s really a way of demonstrating that the program adds value to the workforce.”

“The way I look at it is this,” said Schumacher. “If we send 20 people through this training and give each of them a buck-an-hour raise, the math works out to about $40,000 in annual earnings. That means we have increased the value of the Wisconsin workforce by $40,000 because not all those people are going to be permanent employees of Services Plus. But wherever they go, they’re going to be more valuable employees than they were before.” 

Rick Berg is freelance writer and editor based in Green Bay.