Jeff Rafin

Posted on Jul 1, 2010 :: Face Time
Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer

Jeff Rafn, Photo by Bill Kapinski, Image Studios

As president of Northeast Wisconsin Technical College, H. Jeffrey Rafn is passionate about engaging students in learning – specifically, learning the technical and analytical skills they’ll need for jobs that exist in the New North today, and will exist in the future. Insight Editor Margaret LeBrun sat down with Rafn to discuss NWTC’s connection to business and industry, including the newly-formed Maritime Alliance.

I’ve been really privileged to be the president of Northeast Wisconsin Technical College for what will be 13 years as of July 1. It’s been a really exciting ride. We’ve had 13 years of uninterrupted growth, both in terms of enrollment and the number of graduates. We passed a very sizable referendum in 2001 and expanded our space by 40 percent. When we passed that referendum I said we would have 5,000 full-time equivalent students by 2010, and this year, we have 7,400.

One of the things I’m most proud of is we’ve really taken on service learning and integrated it into our curriculum – we’ll have over 2,000 students this year as part of that program providing some service to the community as part of their overall learning experience.

We’ve been very active with both the Department of Workforce Development and Marinette Marine and have done training in the areas of welding and safety for them. But when they put their bid in for the LCS (U.S. Navy Littoral Combat Ship) contract – which hopefully we will find out about in July or August – we also started working with them to provide the information they needed to be competitive in terms of training. If they were to get that contract, we’re talking about maybe 1,000 new employees.

One of the things that was being touted by Marinette Marine’s competitor in Alabama was they had this college system that was building a maritime center. We said we already have a maritime center here – we have over 300,000 square feet of space that is committed to manufacturing and skills development that would fit into shipbuilding – that’s at NWTC alone. It’s also interesting that we have more ocean-going shoreline than Alabama does: we have 300 miles of shoreline, and of course, we have the port facilities.

We have now created a Maritime Alliance, made up of seven major shipbuilders in the New North. We have been working with the Maritime Alliance on the specific training they want, and by this fall, we expect to offer a basic introduction to shipbuilding.

I am also heading up a group with NEW ERA (Northeast Wisconsin Educational Resource Alliance) where all of the sustainability folks at colleges in the region have created a plan whereby New North would become identified as the No. 1 place for sustainability. While we don’t know whether solar is going to win, or wind is going to win, or biomass is going to win, all will probably be part of the overall equation and we want to make sure our students are flexible enough to move from job to job.

We really see ourselves as having a responsibility or an opportunity to help this community come to grips with and embrace the diversity that is occurring as a strength (NWTC won the New North People, Possibilities, and Progress Diversity Award in 2008.) We’ve worked hard to diversify our staff. When we look out at the Green Bay school system and see that 42 percent of students are of color, and at 11 schools, they are in the majority, we can see the future. Frankly, most of your labor market growth is going to happen in minority communities and we need to take advantage of that, or we will end up being just a lot of small communities that are dwindling in size.

I co-chair the New North Education committee with Damian LaCroix (superintendent of the Howard-Suamico School District). We’ve recognized that there once were a lot of people we could hire even if they had low or no skills.

Now we don’t have those jobs, those are the jobs that went away, went overseas, those are the jobs that got automated. Now we need everybody coming out to participate in a more highly skilled way. That, in my mind, requires a fundamental way of rethinking what happens in education.
The technical college system is one of the oldest, if not the oldest in the country. And the Wisconsin Technical college system is, frankly, the envy of the country.

About Margaret LeBrun

Co-Publisher, Executive Editor View all posts by Margaret LeBrun →