It may take a bus to bridge the skills gap

Bridging the skills gap has become a top priority for governors across the country, as well as the president and Congress. Even when unemployment numbers were at their highest, we continually read stories about companies in Wisconsin that desperately wanted to hire but could not find applicants with the necessary skills. While the unemployment numbers are thankfully coming down, that story is still all too prevalent today.

Academics and policymakers have been spending a good deal of time examining the reasons for the skills gap, and in many cases they’ve been putting forth thoughtful proposals to link potential employees to the appropriate training while removing any barriers that may exist.

The author on his recent trip.

Nearly every initiative or plan I have seen places our two-year and technical colleges at the heart of the solution. In the Madison area, Madison College is certainly on the frontlines.

So I decided to reach out and talk to some of the good folks at Madison College. As I talked with them, several things became readily apparent. First of all, they are incredibly proud of the work they are doing and the number of students of all ages they are preparing and linking to successful employment. Second, they want to do even better. One of the ways they can do better is to make getting to and from Madison College easier. And that’s exactly what they have endeavored to do.

In 2000, the Madison College Student Senate agreed to conduct a referendum asking students if they supported or opposed charging a commuter services fee, which supplements parking and provides a Madison Metro bus pass. The referendum passed overwhelmingly, as have several subsequent referenda seeking to adjust the fee. The current fee stands at $46. Since this fee was enacted, students have used their IDs for more than 5.5 million rides.

So last Tuesday, my colleague Debby Jackson and I ventured out on a sunny, brisk Wisconsin morning (“brisk,” by the way, is a euphemism for other adjectives that aren’t appropriate here) to see for ourselves how all of these students are getting to class.

After checking Google Maps to determine the exact arrival time so we could lessen our exposure to the elements, we walked out the door at 10:09 and hopped on route 6 at 10:12. As we rolled down East Washington Street, we made 21 stops en route to Madison College. At each stop, a couple of folks got on, some of them giving away their destination — traveling with the telltale backpack over the shoulder and ear buds in. A few got off along the way, but the majority of the passengers filed out once we pulled up to Madison College about 20 minutes after we boarded.

We intended to talk to some of the students getting off the bus about why they ride to school and what it means to them, but our first interviewee was highly skeptical of our motives, and as she shunned us, the others moved swiftly out of the cold and into the school. So we moved inside.

I had not been inside Madison College since it underwent significant renovations, but let me tell you that this is an extremely impressive campus.

We stopped and talked to two women who are enrolled in the cosmetology school. As we chatted with them, we asked how they got to school and how they felt about the commuter services fee. The first young lady said she drives in from Baraboo. She indicated that she supports the fee, though, if it allows others to be able to go to school. The second young lady said she lives on the east side of Madison and uses that pass every day to get to and from school. “There’s no way I could go here without it,” she said.

Next, we ventured down to the heavy machinery wing of the campus. Take a look below to see some cool pictures of the equipment these students are learning on. Students of all ages filed in and out of these classrooms, some of whom we had seen on route 6 on the way in.

As we were walking back, we happened upon the Student Senate office, where two of the student senators were sitting. They were both very open to talking to us. One was going to school for his engineering degree, the other political science. When asked what the number one student issue is, neither of the two hesitated. As they shouted “parking!” in unison, I was astounded. Of all the issues out there, parking is the clear number one.

Equipment from Madison College's heavy machinery wing.

They said they hear about it constantly. In order to further alleviate the parking situation, as well as provide better connections, Madison College has entered into a contract with Lamers to provide shuttle services between their Downtown, Truax, West, and South campuses. This shuttle service is also funded by the commuter services fee.

Having found what we came for, Debby and I checked Google Maps for the exact time the route 6 bus arrived, and we headed back out into the brisk weather. I thought we were done bothering — I mean interviewing — people for the day when we struck up a conversation with another rosy-cheeked Wisconsinite waiting to board. He told us his name was Ben. He is in his early 30s and is going to Madison College to learn to become a CNC (computer numerical code) production technician — to operate heavy die casting machines.



Ben lives in Fitchburg and takes the bus to and from school every day. When he is not at Madison College in the morning, he is working at a bakery in Fitchburg through the night. Sleep comes in the form of a three- to four-hour nap in the afternoon. He said he owns a truck but finds the bus works better for him. “Even getting here at 6:30 in the morning, I would have to park three lots away and walk,” he explained. “Not to mention that when I get done with school in the late morning or early afternoon, I am exhausted and probably shouldn’t be driving.”

That conversation left me with several observations. First, it is not pabulum to say there are a lot of incredibly dedicated, hardworking people in Wisconsin who are doing everything they can to get the skills they need to have a productive career.

Second, transit clearly plays an integral role, and not just for those who ride the bus. For every Ben who chooses to ride, there is one more parking space open for the student who is driving in from Baraboo. The fact that the students at Madison College have voted overwhelmingly to impose a fee on themselves to provide bus service, even when the majority of students still drive, shows that they understand this concept. It is time that the rest of us get on board as well.

Gov. Walker has declared this week (March 3-9) Wisconsin Transit Week. During this week, take a moment to think about what our economy would look like if we couldn’t connect hundreds of thousands of people across the state to their jobs or job training or school. Think about what drive time would be like if everyone riding the bus was in their cars. Think about trying to find a parking spot. Then answer the question, “Do you benefit from transit?”

Click here to sign up for the free IB ezine — your twice-weekly resource for local business news, analysis, voices, and the names you need to know. If you are not already a subscriber to In Business magazine, be sure to sign up for our monthly print edition here.