Can’t find skilled workers? Wisconsin businesses can often shop close to home

At Fox Valley Technical College in Appleton, a Health Simulation and Technology Center recently opened to help train medical assistants, health information technicians, and more. Eight new robotic welding units are humming at the college’s Oshkosh campus. The college runs seven automotive and truck training programs, an apprenticeship program for building trades, an agricultural training center, a culinary arts program, and an array of offerings for advanced manufacturing careers.

So, what’s missing? Little more than recruiting enough interested students — and finding enough companies willing to invest in them in ways that will pay for everyone.

“The real issue in Wisconsin today is that we still don’t have enough people with the right skill sets,” said Susan May, president of Fox Valley Technical College since 2008. “As long as there is a mismatch between skills and what employers need, we will have workforce shortages.”

Like other campuses in the Wisconsin Technical College System, Fox Valley aspires to offer programs tailored to the economy around them. Advanced manufacturing, agriculture, health care, logistics, and construction are staples in northeast Wisconsin, so it’s no surprise the college is geared to producing students ready to work in those fields.

Not every high school graduate emerges knowing what he or she wants to do, however. Only 23% of the high school graduates in the region eventually attend Fox Valley Tech — fewer still straight out of high school. Many students aren’t aware of well-paid careers that require technical training instead of a four-year college degree, May said.

“It should be closer to 70% (who attend technical college) in order to meet the demand for skilled workers,” she said.

The push-pull between tech colleges and four-year colleges is nothing new, but many Wisconsin employers say the shortage of skilled workers is becoming more intense. Still, some of those employers seem unaware that training programs that can meet their needs are often just a short drive from their plants and offices.

Models for company engagement at Fox Valley Tech include a technical academy at Appleton West High School sponsored by a handful of manufacturing firms, a trucking program supported by Schneider National, Inc., and an apprentice program for electricians that involves a partnership with Faith Technologies. It’s no accident that 90% of Fox Valley Tech’s graduates find a job within six months.

The story is the same across Wisconsin’s tech college system, but there are still plenty of employers who think they can find the workers they need by sitting back and waiting for the ideal candidate to show up. That doesn’t always happen in a state where average wages are still well below national and regional averages.



Proactive companies usually engage schools and invest in programs that can keep their pipelines filled with skilled workers. They also work to combat the image that careers in manufacturing or related trades are gritty, backbreaking jobs. In most modern manufacturing plants, visitors are much more likely to see computerized equipment and robots than piles of sawdust and metal shavings on the floor.

Some trade associations are doing a lot of the matchmaking themselves. The Wisconsin Automobile and Truck Dealers Association, through its foundation, routinely awards scholarships and sponsorships to students pursuing technical careers in auto and truck dealerships. The process often starts in high school with evening programs that can lead to national certification for students who want to work as auto or truck technicians.

“We really need businesses to hire more kids,” said Dan Klecker, a just-retired teacher at McFarland High School who ran an auto technician program for students from across Dane County. “It’s really amazing how well it works when they do so.”

Many business owners and managers are getting creative in meeting their workforce needs by investing now in workers as they train for tomorrow. In an era when competition for skilled workers is high, those companies are poised to win.

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