Despite the pandemic, the manufacturing sector remains strong and businesses continue to seek workers. Jo Ann Hall, dean of economic and workforce development at Moraine Park Technical College in Fond du Lac, works closely with employers to give them the hand they need while also helping job seekers get the skills they need for in-demand positions. Hall talked with Insight about the school’s Manufacturing Boot Camp program and training people for the jobs most in need.
Your department at Moraine Park Technical College works with both businesses and those looking for work.
Jo Ann Hall: Our primary focus is to help companies be successful. In our area, which is economic and workforce development, here’s the tagline we use: Everything that we do is focused on performance-minded business solutions. We’re really trying to make sure that all the opportunities we’re providing for businesses are helping them be successful. Our driver is economic development, and if the businesses can be successful, then we’re creating opportunities for individuals.
The rest of the college tends to help individuals, which then helps businesses. Our focus is on creating specific solutions for those businesses and helping them solve the business challenges that they’re facing. We spend a lot of time on that and really create customized solutions for the individuals inside those businesses. But on the other side, we also are working with individuals on the unemployed side and the underemployed side. Again, for me, it’s really still about getting to business solutions through our welding and machining boot camp programs. All of that work started because employers were coming to us talking about how they couldn’t find skilled welders, they couldn’t find machinists. They needed quick access to people, and we really needed to find a new market of people who have machining skills and have welding skills. If people have those skills and they’re good at what they do, they will have unlimited opportunities because there are openings everywhere. But the tough part is getting people ready for the work.
How do you help prepare people for employment?
We’re really trying to get people basic foundation skills in welding or machining and help them get their foot in the door. The other thing those individuals typically need is good job-keeping skills. For businesses, we’re pre-vetting all those people, interviewing those people, helping them with their resumes and their cover letters, and then helping match them to employers for internship opportunities. The goal at the end of the internship is that the employee has gained technical skills and job-keeping skills and the employer has a new employee they can depend on.
We’ve had over 300 people come through that program since we started it in 2012, and the nice part is that’s the only program that we offer that’s free to students. For the folks who make it through all 16 weeks of the program, we’ve got about an 85 percent job placement, which is really good. It’s a matter of helping people get into the program, get through the program and then find their way to the employer.
Unemployment is low in Fond du Lac County. Is it hard to find students to go through the program?
When we started the program, unemployment was 8 to 9 percent. The kind of individuals you were getting in there were people who just needed to reskill. It’s been the last three years or so where unemployment has been below 5 percent, so the type of individual that you’re getting in are people who really need to have help in learning what it takes to be consistent in a job. They don’t really have a lot of other opportunities, so they’ve been bouncing from low-paying job to low-paying job and we’re trying to get them into something that can be sustainable.
What skills are employers seeking?
I will tell you the traditional technical skills right now are big — industrial maintenance and welding. We can’t train enough people in industrial maintenance and welding right now. Those are still incredibly strong. And no matter what, employers are still doing training with us for that. When we talk about industrial maintenance, a lot of things are going into more automation routes. Back in the day, it was standard mechanical and some very basic electrical. Now it’s electrical and automation. It’s more robotics, more PLC (programmable logic controller) work and things that will help support automation in their manufacturing facilities. That’s a change in skill for industrial maintenance technicians but one that I think we’re going to continue to see as more plants invest in automation and artificial intelligence. They need folks with more automation and technology skills in that arena.
Has the pandemic affected the program at all??
Yes, a lot of businesses weren’t hiring last fall. They wouldn’t let outside people in their facilities, so it was hard to get the students internships. Many employers were on hold, which I understand. We had to do a lot of work virtually and had to introduce the students not only to the new skills but also to a new way of learning. For students who haven’t been in school before or didn’t have a positive experience, learning online wasn’t the easiest, but we kept at it. I’ll tell you for the spring, we have far more business partners interested in looking for students, and recruitment has been much better.
What’s the best part of your job?
The story I love to tell people is you’re never quite sure the impact you’re having. We have graduation ceremonies. We’ve put about 300 people through. Here’s a real-life story: Due to COVID, we got a dog since we were going to be home a lot more. We went to the dog park and a woman came up to me and said, “You look really familiar. I’m trying to figure out why you look familiar. I know. You’re the boot camp lady.”
At our graduations, we have alumni who come back and say, “I never thought I’d be buying my own home. I never thought I would have a retirement fund. But this 16-week program made such a difference. It gave me a new start. It gave me a chance to be successful in a way that I never thought I would be.” Hearing that is very rewarding.