We’ve all heard it: Businesses in La Crosse and the surrounding communities are struggling to find and retain skilled workers.
This is especially the case in the advanced manufacturing industry. Gone are the days of “dirty” industrial jobs of 20, 30 years ago. Today and, more important, into the future, manufacturing careers combine operational technology and informational technology — they’re high tech and require advanced skills to run, program, and repair robotics and complex machines.
Although these jobs pay well, the number of students interested in this field just isn’t what it needs to be. It’s something Josh Gamer, Western Technical College’s dean of Integrated Technology, experiences regularly.
“We see 3 to 5 jobs available per graduate in these careers,” said Gamer.
The significant shortage of workers in this field is why Western pursued a competitive grant from the National Science Foundation earlier this year. The College was awarded $560,000 in funding to kick-start new initiatives.
The grant, in addition to a recent donation of robotics equipment from Ashley Furniture, has allowed Western to develop new courses in automation and mechatronics, with an emphasis on work-based learning and industry partnership — including leveraging experts in the field to deliver college-level courses to high school students.
“Our goal is to create opportunities for students to connect with employers and to learn from them in a genuine working environment,” said Gamer.
The project also leverages Ashley Furniture’s Mobile Skills Lab, a mobile classroom for advanced manufacturing classes; it will also support the cost of training for the mobile lab’s instructors. Students in four area high schools — Arcadia, Whitehall, Blair-Taylor, and Independence — will take classes inside the lab, earning dual credit at both their high school and Western, encouraging more students at the high school level to consider a career in advanced manufacturing after graduation.
“The main concept is to build a pipeline into these high-demand, high-paying careers,” said Gamer. “Ashley Furniture’s desire to engage youth in these fields prior to leaving high school was really the impetus for it.”
The grant money is also helping with career pathways beyond Western. The college and University of Wisconsin-Stout are working on transferability of the credits into a four-year mechatronics degree.
Gamer says the grant is unique in the way it brings together partners from all sectors of the industry.
“We’ve always engaged with our secondary partners,” said Gamer. “This may be a first though where the secondary schools, employers, and the college all work collectively to mitigate a workforce shortage in advanced manufacturing and build the vitality of our communities.”
The plan is to implement several of these ideas by July of 2021. To make sure all the objectives of the grant have been met, Western has hired an outside evaluator to determine whether these changes have increased student engagement.
“In theory, we should see more students entering college and needing less credits to graduate, saving them time and money,” said Gamer.