Future at stake

Posted on Mar 1, 2015 :: Cover Story
Posted by , Insight on Manufacturing Staff Writer

NWTC President Dr. Jeffrey Rafn keeps in his office a tongue-in-cheek illustration of what his school’s proposed referendum will cost the average taxpayer: A six-pack of Mountain Dew and a package of Oreos.

It’s a friendly way to demonstrate that the $66.5 million referendum will cost about $7.50 in taxes annually on a $150,000 piece of property. But far more serious is what the referendum could cost if it fails.

Manufacturers have been aware for a long time the gap between the growing number of technically focused jobs and the availability of skilled and trained workers is widening. NWTC’s proposed expansions, additions and renovations — about half of which focus on the Trades & Engineering Technology areas — are aimed at helping to weld that gap closed, keeping up with the changing demands of the workplace.

“I can’t begin to tell you how many businesses have said to me, ‘You know, we could expand, but we’re fearful we’re not going to be able to find the people (we need), so we don’t,” Rafn says. “When you make an investment in this college, there’s clearly a return, but that return is not just to the student — it’s right to your community.”

Bill Behme, human resources manager at Bay Shipbuilding Company & Ace Marine in Sturgeon Bay, says manufacturing company leaders are concerned about the lack of skilled labor.

“They’re dying for welders, they’re dying for CNC operators, electricians — the trades are in short supply everywhere,” Behme says. “And as business continues to pick up, and it is — there just is not the skilled labor pool that we need. The last thing we want to do is restrict what we take as far as orders because we can’t find people.”

The largest portion of the NWTC referendum is focused on increasing capacity in the trades and engineering technology areas. The expansions and renovations also will address needs in public safety, energy technology and other fields.

“We are actually in our fourth record year of enrollments in trades and engineering,” Rafn says, and with the college’s continued work with UW-Green Bay and UW-Oshkosh on joint engineering technology programs, the interest will only continue to grow.

Additionally, NWTC is “moving really aggressively into the IT area,” Rafn says. “We basically had a networking program and we were repairing computers.” But IT professionals need people with software development and maintenance knowledge, he says. A program that started this school year planned for 20 students and ended up running two sections of 40 students.

Referendum plans also include a major overhaul of the Marinette campus and significant work on the Sturgeon Bay campus.

“Marinette-Menominee-Peshtigo is a significant area of manufacturing focus,” Rafn says. “We will continue to expand and develop our offerings for the marine industry and the five major shipbuilders in the area, but beyond that we also will be expanding the nursing program and wellness program up in that area.”

The community seems to sense the importance of the college in supporting the area economy. The college gauged public interest last fall through a survey conducted in conjunction with St. Norbert College. It learned that 72 percent of voters would vote “yes” on the referendum and more than 90 percent understood the importance of the college to the community.

“That gave us enough confidence, frankly to say, ‘OK, it appears that there is a willingness to do this,’” Rafn says. The college also is hoping to take advantage of interest rates while they’re low.

A similar referendum at Fox Valley Technical College, which passed in April 2012 for virtually the same amount, focused more on public safety and health technology but also enhanced programs such as diesel mechanics, which NWTC also is planning. While there is crossover between the student populations of FVTC and NWTC, they’re sufficiently different, and the two colleges have compared notes on similar programs such as diesel mechanics to determine whether there’s capacity, Rafn says.

“We continue to work together to make sure that we’re meeting the demands of the labor market and not competing with each other,” Rafn says.

Mark Kaiser, president of Lindquist Machine in Green Bay and one of the founders of the NEW Manufacturing Alliance, says supporting the referendum is one important way of building the workforce of the future.

“I think it’s a no-brainer,” Kaiser says. “I think it’s a great idea, a good use of taxpayer money, and it will get people prepared for the jobs that are out there.”

Lindquist Machine, like other manufacturers in the area, is confronting a shortage of skilled labor that most manufacturers believe will only get worse.

“We’re experiencing what just about every other manufacturer has been experiencing for some time,” Kaiser says. “We have positions for skilled labor machinists, fabricators and engineers, and we have great difficulty finding individuals that have the experience level, the technical background and fit us culturally.”

So where are manufacturers finding these skilled workers now?

“We’re doing a couple of things: We’re stealing from somebody else — I’m being honest — this is why we have the NEW Manufacturing Alliance, because it’s not good for anybody,” Kaiser says. “We try to see who’s available, and who wants to be available, and to the degree we can, we’re hiring out of the technical colleges.”

Behme says Bay Shipbuilding has a full-time employee dedicated to recruitment and two others helping recruit on a part-time basis.

“We are finding (workers) in bits and pieces all over the place, from the technical schools here in town, the technical schools in Green Bay and the Fox Cities and we’re recruiting in areas where there are shipyards throughout the Great Lakes,” Behme says. “There’s a technical school in Illinois that we’ve built a relationship with. We’re getting them out of high school for those who are interested in working in the trades.”

NWTC has been “tremendous at accommodating and molding courses specifically to the type of work that we need,” Behme says. “Here’s one example: Finding skilled metal workers, steel fitters, is nearly impossible, so we need to grow them instead of find them.” The company has worked with NWTC to develop a four-week course for its workers in steel fitting.

Passage of the NWTC referendum would “ensure that the facilities here in Sturgeon Bay continue to provide the necessary classes to get unskilled people to become skilled people,” Behme says.

While hiring from the technical colleges doesn’t completely solve the issue of finding workers with experience, it’s a way to get more people in the pipeline, Kaiser says.

“It’s not a problem that’s solved in a year or two — it’s solved over the long run,” Kaiser says. “At Lindquist alone, the average age is right under 48 or 49. This is going to get worse.”

A failed referendum has the potential to limit growth in manufacturing and cause some businesses to locate elsewhere, Behme says.

“I think that we undervalue the necessity for that especially in a small community like ours. Unless you have a direct connection to somebody who’s gone through NWTC courses, I think you lose touch with how valuable it is to the community, and to the companies in the area,” Behme says.

The NWTC referendum at a glance

The $66.5 million NWTC referendum proposes to:
» Add 160,944 square feet of new space and renovate 240,000 square feet ?at three campuses,.
» Increase capacity to add 1,000 full-time equivalent students and generate $3 million in operational revenue.
» Green Bay campus: Improvements and additions to the trades and engineering and other departments, including public safety. Includes creation of a Transportation Center, the Great Lakes Energy Education Center, expansion of the Manufacturing & Engineering Center, renovation of the Construction Center, burn tower replacement, addition of an Emergency Vehicle Operations Control Building, expansion of Information Technology (IT) programming, expansion of Digital Arts and Media and increased capacity for Career Services delivery.
» Marinette campus: Renovate and add new space to the Health Sciences program; add programs and expand capacity of the Trades & Engineering department; add IT programs in Business; create Student Engagement space; parking lots.
» Sturgeon Bay campus: Renovate fabrication space and expand welding areas; create Student Engagement and integrated support spaces; renovate and expand Health Sciences; renovate delivery spaces.
» $2 million reserved for future land or facilities acquisitions.
Source: NWTC

Random facts about NWTC

» NWTC is one of 16 U.S. community colleges to be designated an Achieving the Dream Leader College in 2014.
» Every $2 invested in NWTC generates $5.80 in benefits to the region.
» NTWC served 43,000 students during ?the 2012-2013 school year.
Source: NWTC