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Dealing with the skills gap in advanced manufacturing

Wisconsin leaders focused on the technical colleges’ approach to developing “gold-collar careers,” which offer rewarding opportunities in high-tech manufacturing to those with a passion for pushing the limits of machining, electronics, IT, and other technologies.

(9/5/12): Wisconsin’s technical colleges’ success in aligning technical education and manufacturing careers was the focus of an international delegation in Washington, D.C. recently.

Experts from Wisconsin, California, and New York were invited by the U.S. Department of Education to meet with Chinese officials interested in American approaches to involving business and industry leaders in the development of education programs. Wisconsin leaders focused on the technical colleges’ approach to developing “gold-collar careers,” which offer rewarding opportunities in high-tech manufacturing to those with a passion for pushing the limits of machining, electronics, IT, and other technologies.

Wisconsin’s representatives were Jim Mackey, the Wisconsin Technical College System’s manufacturing program expert, and Dan Conroy, vice president of human resources for the Nexen Group, a leading manufacturer in northwestern Wisconsin and a close partner of Wisconsin Indianhead Technical College. 

“Chinese manufacturers are facing some of the same challenges we are, including worker preparation and closing skills gaps,” said Mackey. “We had a great response from everyone involved.”

“The meeting was amazing,” said Conroy. “There was much openness and sharing. All the participants were congenial and engaged.  It certainly reinforced the importance of our efforts – the urgency of the skill shortage issue – and highlighted the fact that we have to keep chasing this.”

This was the second time that U.S. and Chinese officials convened on the topic of career and technical education, with the focus of this session on the unique and critical role Wisconsin employers play in developing the curriculum for each education or training program.

“I believe Nexen Group is the standard for other manufacturers to follow when it comes to promoting “gold-collar careers,” said Bob Meyer, president of WITC “I’m pleased that the Chinese educators were able to expose themselves to a best practice partnership as represented by Jim Mackey and Dan Conroy.  The Chinese delegation learned from the best in the nation.”

Local and regional employers serve on advisory committees for each technical college program. These committees rely on the employers’ expertise to ensure that courses and programs are aggressively modified to consistently reflect current industry practices. The employers also provide valuable local labor market insights, which allow the colleges to be confident that program graduates will find employment upon graduation.

“Knowing both Jim and Dan well, I guarantee that this was a productive exchange, and one that really showcased the great work being accomplished by all of our colleges in delivering manufacturing programs that truly reflect the needs of employers,” said Mark Tyler, president of the Wisconsin Technical College System Board.               

Roughly 90 percent of Wisconsin technical college graduates are placed in jobs within six months of graduation. This latest recognition of the high-quality education and training programs offered by the technical colleges comes as the state tightens its focus on job creation and positioning for Wisconsin’s employers to be even more globally competitive. 

“The success of WITC, as well as the other 15 Technical Colleges in Wisconsin, is dependent on strong working relationships with business and industry,” said Meyer. “And there is no stronger partner in that regard than Nexen Group under Dan Conroy’s leadership. Not only does Nexen Group invest itself heavily with participation on WITC’ advisory committees to strengthen our programmatic offerings that hone our graduates’ capabilities, but the company is also extremely dedicated to developing career pathways in the K-12 system by clearly articulating all of the exciting and challenging manufacturing career options available.”