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New Workforce Wave Comes Ashore

Region’s technical colleges strive to fill New North workforce gaps, but employers still need more graduates

Story by Sean Fitzgerald, New North B2B publisher

December 2017

With workforce shortages continuing to plague employers in northeast Wisconsin for the foreseeable future, career preparedness programs through the region’s technical colleges churn out graduates trained for in-demand job skills at record rates.

But in some cases, it’s still not enough to feed the roster for the area’s hungry employers.

In the most recent standardized report on six-month graduate success rates issued earlier this year for 2016 graduates, each of the technical colleges across the New North boasted 94 percent employment for its matriculated students within six months of graduation. Many reported record levels of average pay for those students newly in the workforce.

Appleton-based Fox Valley Technical College reported a record 62 of its academic programs had 100 percent employment within six months after graduation, indicating just how eager employers are to recruit and hire fresh graduates before their competitors swipe these prospective employees off the shelf.

Illustrating that point, FVTC’s student Electronics & Automation Club has a full schedule of guest speakers from industry for the rest of the year without even making calls to invite speakers to attend, said Steve Straub, dean of manufacturing and agricultural technologies at the school. Students engaged in this club – which meets twice monthly – are so highly sought after by manufacturers across northeast Wisconsin that leaders from these various manufacturers are proactively contacting the club and asking to present to its student members as guest speakers. Those not on the club’s agenda for the coming year have been placed on a waiting list, Straub said.

“We’re scheduled way out and haven’t even had to make a phone call to find speakers,” Straub said, indicating many of these manufacturers are seeking to recruit first-year students early for internships while they’re still in school and extend job offers prior to graduation for students in their final semester.

“There’s just not enough graduates out there to be drafted by these companies,” Straub said. “Particularly with automation, we need more and more people to understand automation technology and how to apply it.”

At Northeast Wisconsin Technical College in Green Bay, a 2015 public referendum to borrow $66.5 million for facilities enhancements across the campus expanded the manufacturing technologies labs, but they’re not nearly full.

“Our biggest challenge is that we have all this additional capacity,” said Joe Draves, associate dean for trades and engineering technology at NWTC, indicating that the school could fill additional course sections if there were simply more students.

And that’s too bad, Draves said, because students in NWTC’s one- and two-year manufacturing programs are often receiving job offers during their final two semesters in school. NWTC’s machine tool – CNC technician one-year technical diploma program boasted 100 percent employment among its 44 graduates in 2016.

“The majority of those students, before they even graduate, are employed,” Draves said.

Lucrative job opportunities

The opportunities are lucrative for a motivated, hard-working graduate. Students from Fox Valley Tech’s automated manufacturing systems program, for example, reported an average starting salary of $50,500 in 2016, shortly after getting started in their jobs. Those graduates who have been out of the program and on the job for five years or more report an average salary of $74,000, according to Fox Valley Tech’s graduate success report for 2017.

Similarly, Fox Valley Tech’s mechanical design associate degree graduates are reporting an average salary of $38,000 within six months of graduation, while those still employed in the field at the 5-year mark are making $51,000 per year, on average.

At Northeast Wisconsin Tech, the aforementioned one-year machine tool technical diploma program provided a median annual salary of $37,400 within six months of graduation, while its one-year welding technical diploma program provided its 91 graduates with an average annual salary approaching $34,000. Draves said the short-term commitment to these one-year programs is a small sacrifice of time and tuition for a lucrative set of skills in a highly sought after career field.

“The upside potential for students in these programs is tremendous,” Draves said. “They go out and get a job where they’re making $33,000 to $35,000-plus.”

More often than not, Draves said, employers hiring these graduates will foot the bill for their new hires to continue to get more training toward an associate degree or additional certifications in their field.

Heeding the call from local manufacturers in the Greater Green Bay area, NWTC is putting together another one-year technical diploma program – this one focused specifically on metal fabrication – that it intends to begin offering in fall 2018.

Getting students in the door

Demonstrating just how hungry New North region employers are for qualified job candidates, the recent Northeast Wisconsin Career Expo held in Ashwaubenon in late September featured more than 3,100 available jobs across the region, including some positions that paid in excess of $60,000 per year.

Yet, the challenge of matching newly-minted graduates with the in-demand job openings employers are looking to fill has more to do with low student interest to enroll in advanced manufacturing and other technical programs more than anything else.

Draves said NWTC’s goal is to provide enough graduates each year to fill at least 60 percent of the job postings available in a particular field of work within its district.

“Unfortunately, we’re well below that,” Draves said, noting the school continually enhances its efforts to attract more students to its programs.

Straub indicated one strategy for Fox Valley Tech has been increased outreach to high school students, their parents and teachers to learn more about the programs, facilities and state-of-the-art equipment offered by the region’s technical colleges.

“Additionally, we’re continuing to work with (K-12) schools offering students a chance to earn dual credits through our programs,” Straub said.

The initiative has been surprisingly effective, with a large number of high school graduates transitioning directly from high school into their degree program at Fox Valley Tech with a bank of credits they’ve already earned. Last year 339 students participated in the dual credit transfer program between their high school and Fox Valley Tech. This year the school has a goal of increasing that number to 370 high school students.

Keeping it local

The notion of so-called “brain drain” – the idea that a number of graduates educated and trained in northeast Wisconsin will move away from the region after graduation – continues to be a regular concern for economic development officials and employers alike.

Historical data from the 1980s and 1990s provided some baseline evidence to support the notion of brain drain. But technical colleges from the region have typically demonstrated a higher number of graduates living and working in the region years after graduation. The most recent Graduate Follow Up report from Northeast Wisconsin Tech indicated 69 percent of its students matriculating in 2016 were employed within the district, while Fox Valley Tech reported 63 percent of its 2016 graduates were employed within the district.

That metric was slightly lower at Moraine Park Technical College in Fond du Lac, where 44 percent of 2016 graduates remained employed within the district. But those numbers are often higher for individual degree programs such as nursing, where nearly 100 percent of Moraine Park nursing graduates are employed nearby in the healthcare field.

Administrative leaders from many of the area’s technical colleges indicate their mission is to “maximize the skills of people living in the area,” which often explains the high ratio of graduates remaining nearby to work after completing their studies.

Often the average age of technical college students is in the mid-20s, meaning there’s a better chance that students have already sprouted roots in the region such as purchasing a home, getting married, starting a family or beginning a career. Such community connections also lead to a higher number of graduates remaining in the area after graduation.