Hands-on programs show why investing in higher education is right for economy

Kyle Metzloff’s “laboratory” at the UW-Platteville is more accurately a foundry, a place where students majoring in industrial technology can learn the fiery secrets of metal-casting.

It’s also a crucible for molding young careers, as all of the students who graduate from Professor Metzloff’s program land well-paid industrial jobs — usually with Wisconsin firms tied to the state’s historic metal-casting and foundry sector.

“If I could say it’s more than a 100% placement rate, I would,” Metzloff said, “because the demand is that high.”

The metal-casting program at UW-Platteville is recognized as one of the top five in the United States and is one of only 30 or so certified by the Foundry Education Foundation, which has close ties to the American Foundry Society. As the campus works to absorb cuts in its operational budget, however, its growth may be restrained despite the fact that it enjoys significant industry support.

The story is much the same across the Platteville campus, as well as other four-year campuses within the UW System, as the ripple effects of state budget cuts and a general tuition freeze take hold.

With UW-Platteville’s share of overall budget cuts estimated at roughly $3.5 million per year, plans are in the works to make ends meet. Chancellor Dennis Shields has said the campus will balance its budget while providing “the same affordable, accessible and high-quality education that has been the standard of this university for the past 150 years.”

But how to get there? Options include looking for new sources of revenue, such as private gifts, and a mix of spending cuts, some of which involve reductions in faculty or staff. A recent budget paper estimated about 70 jobs could be lost at UW-Platteville, mostly by attrition and incentives to retire, but not entirely so.

That’s no small loss of faculty and staff on a growing, regional campus with about 7,500 students. It’s also a loss to the state economy, especially if hands-on programs that contribute to productivity in basic fields can’t grow to meet demand for skilled workers.



The foundry program is one example with UW-Platteville’s College of Business, Industry, Life Sciences and Agriculture. The college produces students who work in animal science, soils and crops, environmental horticulture, biotechnology, health care, supply chain management, finance, manufacturing technology, building construction, and occupational safety management.

In short, it supplies workers in some of the state’s bread-and-butter business sectors. However, the numbers show the college has been producing fewer students in recent years, in part because of constraints on its growth. The same is largely true in the College of Liberal Arts and Education, which produces graduates in fields such as criminal justice, humanities, and the arts.

State budget cuts have forced efficiencies in some areas at UW-Platteville, as they have on other campuses, as well as stronger partnerships with business and industry. Once the low-hanging fruit is harvested from the tree, will it become harder to make cuts without sawing off a few limbs?

That question must be confronted in the next state budget cycle, when the governor and members of the Wisconsin Legislature revisit support for higher education. While the latest budget figures show a modest $135 million surplus for the fiscal year that ended June 30, the state will likely grapple with the same mega-issues — Medicaid, corrections, transportation, K-12 education, and higher education — the next time around.

Another over-arching issue to be addressed in the next state budget is demographics. Mounds of data demonstrate an urgent need for Wisconsin to attract and retain as many skilled workers as possible. With an aging workforce and limited in-migration, the state cannot afford to lose homegrown workers or turn away young people from elsewhere who want to get an education here.

Wisconsin’s economy cannot grow if it consistently loses more workers than it gains. In the foundry of human talent, more raw material will be needed in the years to come.

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