Posted on Dec 9, 2009 :: Cover Story
Posted by , Insight on Manufacturing Staff Writer

Heavy metal dominates the midnight hour at Fox Valley Technical College’s Oshkosh campus. It’s not head bangers rocking out to the latest Metallica release. What you will find in the Spanbauer Center’s labs after hours these days are student welders, many of whom had different career paths a year ago. That was before the recession stripped nearly 50,000 manufacturing jobs from Wisconsin, one of the nation’s leading manufacturing states. Welder jobs, however, are still in demand.

Many of the midnight hour welders here are returning students – displaced workers, with families and obligations that make it difficult to fit into a daytime class schedule, so Fox Valley Tech’s solution was to create late-night welding classes that run from 9 p.m. to 1 a.m. It’s always a full house, according to Chris Jossart, manager of media relations for Fox Valley Tech. “It not only meets the needs of the workforce, but it meets them when they are ready to receive the training,” he says.

Many, for reasons outside of their control, are ready right now.

The economic downturn has dealt Wisconsin and the New North some tough blows in the past year. As vibrant as the manufacturing sector has been, it has also suffered. Since October of 2008, Northeast Wisconsin has lost more than 5,000 manufacturing jobs.

Those are folks who need new skills to flourish in the changing job market. Manufacturers in the region say they expect to ramp up hiring in 2010 and beyond, but many of those new jobs will require different skills than the jobs that have been lost.

In increasing numbers, displaced workers and others are turning to Wisconsin’s technical college system, which has seen a 14.6 percent increase in enrollment in the past year.

“People understand that this is an opportunity to build their skills up,” says Ann Franz, economic project manager for Northeast Wisconsin Technical College’s Workplace Learning Services. “People who got jobs right out of high school understand they can’t count on that anymore.”

Some are coming back on their own, others because they are receiving retraining through state or federal grants aimed at workforce retraining. Still others are coming to sharpen their skills so they don’t wind up in the “displaced worker” category.

For technical college administrators and faculty, the challenge is how to best prepare them for a changing workforce. It’s not just a matter of adding a few extra sections of classes. Technical schools must anticipate the skills employers want. They have to do all that without adding excess capacity that would have to be eliminated once employment rebounds.

“We know that this is a bubble and we know we will get past it,” says Mike Cattelino, associate dean for manufacturing, information and agricultural technologies at Fox Valley Tech. “We’ve been careful to expand where we can help people.”

Cattelino says Fox Valley Tech tries to balance the needs of students with the realities of the economy and what the school can support. New sections have been added for some programs and new skill sets are being integrated into existing classes and programs.

Cattelino also sees a change in attitude among workers coming back for retraining, realizing that this is the opportunity to give themselves skills that will give them a career rather than a job.

“People are being proactive about their skills,” Cattelino says. “They tend to have a deeper focus because they have had those real life things already happen to them.”

New attitude or not, many students are coming back after a long layoff from school. The first order of business for the technical colleges is to address those needs so that students can get on to the task of retraining.

“A lot of them have been out of school for a while,” says Peter Thillman, director of workforce solutions for Lakeshore Technical College. “We’ve got to get them ready to come back.”

That usually means remedial work in math, English and perhaps a course in basic computer skills. Fortunately, these skills also are among those that employers are looking for in the new working environment.

In addition, employers are looking for team building, leadership and problem-solving skills, Thillman says.

“There is an emphasis on the soft skills right now,” he says. “Employers don’t want to have to tell you how to do the job. They expect you to be able to do it and resolve any problems that may come up.”

Those are skills that can be folded into the existing curriculum for many programs, he says.

Still, technical colleges are adding to the curriculum. Like Fox Valley Tech, Lakeshore Tech has modified its welding program to allow more students to go through the program in a shorter time, says Doug Lindsey, dean of trade and industry.

The welding program at Lakeshore Tech used to run as a nine-month program that ran from August to May, but someone who lost his or her job in December couldn’t get into the class until the following August.

Now, the program is running double sections, starting in July and running for six months. The time has been reduced, but the capacity has been doubled, allowing the school to double its output, from 32 graduates in 2009 to a projected 64 in 2010, Lindsey says.

One of those sections will be entirely funded by retraining money from the state Department of Workforce Development, he says.

Schools are also trying to anticipate the demands of emerging careers, an important part of keeping the Wisconsin workforce vibrant.

A recent study released by The Workforce Alliance and the Skills2Compete-Wisconsin campaign found that more than 426,000 “middle skill” jobs will be available in Wisconsin by 2016 – jobs requiring more than a high school diploma but less than a four-year degree.

“Middle-skill jobs are key to our state’s health, its infrastructure and its economic growth,” says Josh Bullock, Moraine Park Technical College’s vice president of strategic advancement. “They include the running and maintenance of our factories’ advanced machinery and the construction of our bridges and buildings.”

Moraine Park’s Advanced Manufacturing and Technology Center, in fact, was created with the goal of training for those emerging skill sets.

With employers working on LEED certification of their buildings and lean techniques as part of their everyday business operations, those skills also need to be integrated into the curriculum, says Mark Weber, dean of trades and technical at NWTC.

Automation has created a whole new approach for many of the traditional trades, like welding. “Running the robot welder actually takes great welding skills,” Weber says. “It can make a lot of things wrong in a hurry.”

Fox Valley Tech has launched a certificate program in industrial maintenance to keep up with emerging demand in that field. Both Lakeshore Tech and NWTC have created programs that deal with the emerging wind energy programs, focusing on turbine maintenance, as well as tower safety and rescue.

There are also programs that support students, especially dislocated workers. A job seekers network has formed at Fox Valley Tech to help students who may have never been through the job search process before. Displaced workers retraining at Fox Valley Tech also formed a group called OWLs, which stands for older, wiser learners.

Cattelino wonders if tech schools are doing enough to help the families of retraining workers. While he’s not certain there is a role for the tech colleges to play, he also thinks it is something that faculty and administrators should consider.

“That’s pretty high stress,” Cattelino says. “That may be a larger impact than what we realize.”

Manufacturing Alliance produces second All Stars publication

In this issue of Insight on Manufacturing, you’ll find the second annual NEW Manufacturing Alliance All Stars publication, designed to educate students and their parents about the potential for rewarding careers in manufacturing, and to dispel misconceptions about manufacturing careers.

Besides the sample included in this publication, the Alliance plans to distribute more than 20,000 copies to high school administrators, guidance counselors and technical education teachers in the 18-county New North region, as well as to parents and students.

The All Stars publication was developed in partnership with the NEW Manufacturing Alliance, Insight Publications and filmmaker Alex Zacarias of 3N Productions and Educational Television Productions of Northeastern Wisconsin, which produced the videos that accompany the All Stars project. Zacarias also heads the Manufacturing the Future media project, which is underwritten in part by the NEW Manufacturing Alliance.

The Manufacturing the Future program is an initiative to increase awareness about manufacturing in Wisconsin including its history, the challenges it faces and the future for the next generation of manufacturers. The program includes a public television documentary with educational components and a website with links to resources and information about the manufacturing industry. Wisconsin Public Television is also supporting the project.

For more information on the Manufacturing the Future project, contact Alex Zacarias at  [email protected] or (920) 265-0011, or visit the Manufacturing the Future website at

To obtain copies of the NEW Manufacturing Alliance All Stars or for more information on NEW Manufacturing Alliance initiatives to attract new manufacturing workers, contact Ann Franz at (920) 498-5587 or Bobbi Miller at (920) 720-5600. The publication is also available for viewing online at