Ask a business leader about the potential benefits of Fox Valley Technical College’s referendum for their companies, and they’ll be happy to explain. But more often, they prefer to steer the conversation to the impact on the region as a whole.
The $66.5 million referendum, set for April 3, would expand the college’s buildings and programs in areas of key demand, including public safety, health technology and transportation. That’s going to help ensure the future of growth and development throughout the Fox Valley and beyond, say leaders of several top employers, many of whom joined together to form the Friends of FVTC group to support the referendum.
“From a workforce-readiness perspective, from a New North-region perspective, technical colleges and Fox Valley Technical College in particular, they are very critical to getting skill sets ramped up,” says Margie Harvey, vice president of human resources for Miles Kimball and a member of the Friends group.
“There are so many unfilled positions and high unemployment within the New North. The plans the technical college is making now are very targeted to where we have demand today – and where the demand will be three to five years from now.”
Harvey and others say FVTC is key to retraining displaced workers or those who need to develop new skill sets to keep up with changing technology. Harvey, who is former state director for the Wisconsin State Council-Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), says a strong technical college system in general is critical to attracting new businesses to the region.
“When employers from outside of the area are looking at where they’re going to go, one of the key things they look at is what is the technical college like and how closely tied they are to the employers,” Harvey says.
The referendum project also includes renovations and expansions at the Chilton Regional Center, the college’s Agriculture Center, the Appleton campus and a land purchase adjacent to the Advanced Manufacturing Technology Center on Highway 41 in Oshkosh.
Miles Kimball and other area companies such as Miller Electric have a symbiotic relationship with the technical college and rely on it for both training and skilled workers. The college’s ability to keep up with demand will help ensure the future economic health of the region, says Mike Weller, president of Miller Electric and the treasurer of the Friends group.
“I think we have to look at it from a big-picture perspective,” he says. “One of the ways we in the Valley can maintain a high quality of life and keep jobs here is by ensuring employers continue to be competitive – and to remain competitive, they must have skilled employees to meet future growth. Fox Valley Technical College can help employers get those qualified employees.”
The benefits extend to the community as a whole, Weller says. The $34.8 million Public Safety Training Center, which will be located on the grounds of the Outagamie County Regional Airport, will provide a $100 million return on investment within five years, in terms of wages for area residents and income from people coming into the community for training.
“Very seldom do you get a three-two-one return on your money,” Weller says.
If the referendum is approved, community residents can expect to pay about $12.50 annually per $100,000 of property valuation.
“I feel that it’s a relatively small price to pay for us to continue to educate the people that live within our region,” says Dan Neufelder, president and CEO of Affinity Health System. “I think many people would be surprised that many of the students within Fox Valley Technical College already hold college degrees from other places. So I don’t view it as a cost, I view it as an investment.”
Lynn Peters, executive director of the Fox Cities Convention & Visitors Bureau, says the addition of the Public Safety Training Center has the potential to bring more visitors to the area. Considering that a significant number of hotel rooms in the Fox Cities are paid for by business travelers, the college is one important piece of the local tourism pie, she says.
“We’ve seen a downturn in business travel, and when times get tough, everybody sort of pulls in their reins,” Peters says. “This would be something very new with a sophisticated level of training, and I could imagine lots of people saying, ‘Oh, it would be worth the trip.’”
The comprehensive Public Safety Training Center, which would be constructed on 75 acres of property at the airport, is attracting buzz because of its state-of-the-art features. They include a four-season forensics lab, an air disaster simulator and a variety of replicated buildings that would provide public safety officers with real-life emergency simulations.
“We attract 10,000 to 12,000 visitors per year – firefighters and emergency personnel who come for product reviews, inspections and training conducted by our employees and by technical college staff,” says Jim Johnson, president of Pierce Manufacturing in Appleton, one of the world’s leading producers of fire trucks. “If the Public Safety Training Center is built, that provides us the opportunity to bring in even more firefighters and emergency personnel to our community, and therefore more dollars to our community.”
The demand for new firefighters and emergency personnel is increasing as many current emergency workers approach retirement age across North America, Johnson says.
“There’s an incredible opportunity for our community to build a world-class training facility,” he says, “all while interest rates on the funds required to build the facility are at a historic low.”
The college is currently borrowing at a rate of 1.31 percent for capital expenses.
Outagamie County Regional Airport director Marty Lenss says the airport firefighters are required to undergo live fire training, for which they must currently travel to Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport. The immediate benefit of the facility would be more training opportunities and more opportunities to keep the training dollars local. Eventually the facility could ultimately become FAA-approved, and then would bring firefighters in from anywhere in the state.
“I think first and foremost, the technical college is one that specializes in the types of career training for a number of people who, given the economy, have been displaced,” Lenss says. “They’ve gone back to the technical college for retraining and there are waiting lists, in particular, in the public safety training arena. These are the folks who answer when you dial 911, when you need assistance. So you want the best-trained, best-equipped folks for our citizens. The technical college provides a quality training experience, so when emergency personnel are in the station and on duty, they’re going to be very sharp in all their skill sets and quick in their response.”
Real-world health training
The second-largest project in the referendum would be the $11.9 million Health Simulation and Technology Center. That project would include a robotic patient and allow students to experience in a classroom setting severe medical conditions, such as heart attacks, that they might not get to experience until they’ve been working on the job, says Neufelder.
“I think it’s not just a coincidence that Affinity has been rated one of the top quality health care systems in the country and that so many of our employees are trained by Fox Valley Technical College,” he says. “I think there’s a strong connection there. And Fox Valley Tech provides not only this service for the Affinity Health Care System but for other local health systems as well – systems that have a broad reach throughout Wisconsin. I think the technical college has become a regional asset in the training of health care employees.”
FVTC President Susan May says the college is constantly exploring new and emerging health care opportunities and works to adapt instruction and resources to help prepare students for those new opportunities.
May says the referendum might seem sudden to people who are now hearing about it in the media, but the college has been developing the projects for the past six years and held off on presenting them to the public because of the economy.
“We knew our region faced some economic challenges,” May says. “But the college has increased 30 percent in enrollment, and we’re now seeing indications of the economy turning. We’re seeing incredible signs of growth in various industries in this region and recognize a skills gap coming. We need to get ahead of that.”
The technical college has been working to gauge public response on the referendum since last fall. It continues to reach out to its nine-county district by making a series of presentations at government meetings, chambers of commerce, and professional/service groups. Some questions and concerns raised have included environmental assessments (the college has already conducted a wetlands delineation and is continuing the process of environmental assessments per state statute) and operating cost impact (it would be built into the annual operating budget and will not produce any more tax impact to the public).
On the road
Last year, the college served 53,000 people, about two-thirds of whom are students continuing their education or switching careers.
The high-demand career areas of truck driving and diesel technology would see a boost with the expansion of the J.J. Keller Transportation Center, which would add more classroom space, inspection and maintenance bays and double program capacity.
Roehl Transport, which is headquartered in Marshfield, last year constructed a multi-million dollar trucking terminal in Menasha that employs 30 people. It located there in part because of the proximity of FVTC and its training programs, and because of the population in the Fox Valley from which the company draws its talent, says Greg Koepel, vice president of workforce development & administration for Roehl Transport.
Educational opportunities need to expand in this area because so many truck drivers are retiring – yet the demand for truck drivers hasn’t waned and only continues to remain steady, Koepel says.
“Everything we have comes by truck, so in the case of our company, it was a recession-proof job,” he says. “We never laid off any truck driver. There is a tremendous amount of job security and stability in trucking, and of course, to have trucks moving, you need technicians to keep them moving.”
Koepel said Wisconsin’s technical college system is more cohesive than in other states and is very good at helping potential Roehl drivers and technicians gain the skills they need to be successful – and that helps Wisconsin to remain competitive nationwide. Such classes are vital, too, as funding cutbacks eliminate trades education from the educational system, Koepel says.
“The fabric of a community is made up of a lot of threads – employers who provide jobs and paychecks are certainly part of that fabric, and schools that provide the skills and the employees are part of that fabric,” he adds. “When you start pulling strands out of that cloth, it starts to fall apart. We hope voters recognize the value the technical college brings to our community – it will cause people like us to come into the area and to provide jobs and income-earning opportunities. It all fits together.”