THE BLOG
05/31/2016 08:52 am ET Updated Jun 01, 2017

Creating Solutions to the Skilled Worker Shortage

Where are the skilled workers? That seems to be the question in many parts of the country, and certainly in Wisconsin.

During our college's regular talks with local employers about their current and future needs, the subject invariably turns to a projected skilled worker shortage. The issue is also a major theme of Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce (WMC), Be Bold III (a proactive policy think tank), the seven Wisconsin regional economic development organizations, local chambers of commerce, and others.

Many of the skilled workers in the current workforce are baby boomers nearing retirement. And, the demographic projections indicate there are fewer people in the generation behind this retiring group to fill these vacancies.

But, as a technical college, what can we do to help the situation? We could ask for more state and federal funding to expand programs - but in the current climate that is not something we should count on. We could throw our hands up in the air and wish our employers good luck. Or, we could roll up our sleeves and develop partnerships to prepare for what is coming, and address the issue from many different angles.

Let's look at the facts.

The United States Federal Reserve Board in their report, The Beige Book, (also known as the Summary of Commentary on Current Economic Conditions) indicates that employers report difficulty finding sufficient applicants for the following occupations:

  • Information technology
  • Engineering
  • Legal
  • Health-care services
  • Management
  • Skilled manufacturing
  • Building trades
  • Transportation and warehousing.

The effect of the skilled worker shortage are even more dramatic, because we are coming off a severe recession, when many people (including skilled workers) lost their jobs.

The demographic picture provides an added complication for states like Wisconsin, Illinois, Michigan and Ohio, that have experienced overall population growth less than 2% from 2010 to 2015 (Wisconsin projects the population will increase by .05% during the next five years). Given the projection of low population growth and an aging population, there will fewer people between the primary working years of 18 and 65. Simply put, the numbers will "not add up" in terms of people to replace the skilled and semi-skilled workers that are needed. These states need to consider stepping up efforts to recruit talent from outside the region.

Of course, finger pointing is also part of the mix. Some employers and political leaders report that schools are not producing enough qualified replacements, and that parents and teachers need to do more to channel young people into the occupations where the shortages are greatest.

Western Technical College recognizes it cannot solve the skilled worker shortage alone. It has developed a plan to do its part.

  • Develop High School Academies for manufacturing and building systems occupations, allowing high school juniors and seniors to take classes at Western's new Integrated Technology Center and earn college credit. Furthermore, the college is seeking industry partners to provide field experiences, guest speakers, and internships to enhance the learning environment. These partners will also be asked to provide scholarships to High School Academy students to encourage the transition to further training in the career pathways.
  • Expand the number of Career Pathways Certificates with a special emphasis on reaching working adults. Many adults in our region are under employed, yet they are unable to quit their jobs in order to enroll in college full-time. Pathways certificates provide real opportunities for adults to take part-time coursework that will lead to better-paying job opportunities. Furthermore, these certificates will provide college credit, allowing these individuals to later complete a diploma or degree, further improving their employment opportunities.
  • Expand activities designed to improve student retention and program graduation rates. In a time when there are significant shortages of skilled workers, it is important to maximize the number of graduates in each program. Through enrollment management, as well as coordinated retention efforts through a national program called "Achieving the Dream," the college has developed plans to significantly improve retention and graduation rates.
  • Increase overall college enrollment. Through the focus on key results in its Vision 2020 Strategic Plan, Western is committed to increasing the annual number of persons served from approximately 7,000 per year to 10,000 per year. In order to accomplish this goal, there is a need to significantly increase online, evening, and weekend offerings, as well as continuing education for incumbent workers.
  • Expand outreach beyond the region. Many of the programs and facilities at Western (such as the new Integrated Technology Center) are considered best in class for the upper Midwest. The college believes it can attract students from surrounding states, provide housing during their program enrollment, and then work with area employers to seek opportunities to persuade these individuals to stay in the area after program completion.
  • Finally, Western will seek to work as partners with area employers to assist them in developing strategies to better recruit and retain employees.
But here's the thing, the demographic challenges are real. And the first step involves policy leaders recognizing that fact. Where are the skilled workers? They are on the horizon if we take the right steps.