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Focus on the Workforce: Wisconsin Manufacturing: Innovative Approaches to Address the Skills Gap


Scott Walker Headshot
Scott Walker
Governor of Wisconsin

If you visit a modern manufacturing facility today, you will likely see what I have as I’ve toured some of Wisconsin’s many manufacturing facilities.

You invariably will find clean, safe, high-tech production facilities with workers operating sophisticated, computer-controlled equipment. The workers are earning family-supporting wages in positions that offer good pay, benefits, and the satisfaction that comes from work that is engaging and challenging, and requires a team approach to problem solving and success.

There are many jobs available for individuals who either have the necessary skills or are taking steps to gain them, and it’s vital for us to get this message across to our current and future workforce.

According to some projections, Wisconsin’s manufacturing sector will add nearly 19,000 jobs during the 10-year stretch ending in 2020. On Wisconsin’s premier online job search resource, JobCenterofWisconsin.Com, job openings statewide have exceeded 60,000, with production occupations consistently in greatest demand.

Manufacturers have expressed their frustration to me time and again about the skills gap. One key factor is our state’s growing economy. Our state’s unemployment rate has fallen to its lowest point since 2008, and the latest available data shows we’ve added thousands of manufacturing jobs from December 2010 through December 2012. And, with approximately one out of every five Wisconsin jobs in manufacturing, our state has one of the highest concentrations in manufacturing in the country.

Aside from our state’s improving economy, another key factor is the loss of older, skilled workers as baby boomers retire. The need for skilled production workers is constant as manufacturers add jobs and try to fill vacancies.

Manufacturing jobs offer good pay. In Wisconsin, the average annual wage for manufacturing workers is just over $10,000 more than the average wage of other workers, $52,413 a year versus $41,985.

High school students and their teachers who visited Wisconsin manufacturing sites last October during Manufacturing Month were surprised to learn what entry-level jobs pay. The students were equally, if not more, impressed by the number of new pickup trucks in the lots and the young workers driving them away at the end of their shift. What makes manufacturing appealing for many is that the path to rewarding careers can begin with a variety of training and education options. Rather than a four-year degree from a liberal arts college or university, an individual can earn a two-year degree from a technical college, or a certificate with short-term training.

Since 2011, Wisconsin has made substantial investments in workforce development, approximately $135 million within the past year alone. This includes Wisconsin Fast Forward (WFF), a worker training grant program that will provide up to $15 million in state-funded matching grants for customized worker training that is employer-driven.

Wisconsin Fast Forward brings together businesses, workforce and economic development organizations, and training providers, to develop innovative training programs that are employer-defined. As of late April, the program has awarded
approximately $2.6 million in awards, including 24 awards to manufacturing businesses.

Earlier this year, Wisconsin approved a $35.4 million expansion of the Wisconsin Fast Forward program as part of my Blueprint for Prosperity to deliver tax relief and increase our investment in worker training. This expansion targets areas such as decreasing wait lists in high-demand fields at the Wisconsin Technical College System.

In Wisconsin, we also increased our investment in Wisconsin’s model apprenticeship programs, both the first-in-the-nation Registered Apprenticeship program, and the Youth Apprenticeship that began two decades ago.

Wisconsin’s Registered Apprenticeship program has seen a rebirth in the last several years, with the number of apprentices increasing steadily since 2010. Among the trades that have seen the greatest increase are machinists, which have grown nearly 50%, and tool and die makers, which have grown by 70% over the same time frame.

The State of Wisconsin has put a renewed focus on apprenticeship, recognizing that apprentices result in loyal and highly-trained workers in a variety of professions. The Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development (DWD) embarked on an outreach initiative to employers and prospective apprentices, raising awareness of the opportunities that exist and highlighting the benefits of apprenticeship. For many students, apprenticeship provides an alternative to a four-year education, during which apprentices can earn a wage at the same time they’re receiving training in one of more than 200 professions.

Wisconsin’s Youth Apprenticeship is another program that has seen success in Wisconsin. In this nationally-recognized program, high school juniors and seniors can spend 450 hours per school year learning in-demand skills like CNC machining and welding. As of the current school year, nearly 500 high school juniors and seniors are enrolled in the manufacturing program area, where they can specialize in assembly, manufacturing processes, welding, or machining.

The Wisconsin Youth Apprenticeship program enrolled the first high school students in 1992 and has been steadily growing over the last several years. Today it enrolls more than 2100 students, who are placed at more than 1500 Wisconsin employers. Over the last five years, the average graduation rate has exceeded 80%, with 60% of youth apprenticeship graduates completing a post-secondary degree.

One example is Anthony Thao, a senior at Bradley Tech High School in Milwaukee who participates in a youth apprenticeship at Matzel Manufacturing. Anthony currently works in Quality Control, checking, inspecting, and clearing parts that are machined on the production floor. He hopes to work full-time at Matzel once he graduates from high school and will pursue a bachelor’s degree in business management from a local university.

Focus on the Workforce: Cardinal Manufacturing

Another Wisconsin program that has taken training to the next level is Cardinal Manufacturing, which is operated by the Eleva-Strum school district. Teacher Craig Cegielski realized that for his program to be successful, he would need to identify a funding source to cover maintenance costs, tooling, and consumable materials. So he created Cardinal Manufacturing, a two-period class that follows several preparatory metalworking classes. Students are responsible for all aspects of operating a machine shop.

The program has found a unique niche by taking on small jobs that would not be profitable for manufacturing businesses, completing the jobs and providing students with a steady supply of work. Area manufacturers have embraced the program and have donated a number of CNC machines and other equipment, recognizing that today’s Cardinal Manufacturing students could very well be their future workforce. To learn more about the Wisconsin Fast Forward worker training program, visit ME

This article was first published in the July 2014 edition of Manufacturing Engineering magazine. Click here for PDF.

Published Date : 7/1/2014

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