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Being workplace ready more important than ever

Area schools doing their best to help meet industry needs

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September 23, 2022

NORTHEAST WISCONSIN – It’s no secret that many employers – no matter the industry – are understaffed and desperate to hire more people.

To meet those needs, universities and technical colleges throughout Northeast and North Central Wisconsin are doing their best to get students trained and job-ready as quickly as possible.

A noticeably trend many are seeing is that students want to get through school and into the job market faster than in years past.

“We’re noticing more interest in online courses than we’ve had in the past,” Kate Burns, the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay (UWGB) provost, said. “We’re also seeing growth in our accelerated programs, where they can take a course in seven weeks as opposed to 14 weeks. So, for our part-time, non-traditional students, that allows them to finish faster.”

Dr. Jennifer Lanter, vice president for learning and chief academic officer, said a similar trend is being seen at Fox Valley Technical College (FVTC).

Lanter said the biggest shift they’ve seen in the last couple of years is there is less interest in their two-year, associate’s degree programs, and more interest in their short-term, certification programs and tech diplomas.

“Maybe it’s a one semester or one-year credential that’s going to get them into the workforce earlier,” she said. “We have yet to see this year if (that is) going to switch back over to the associate’s degree, and we won’t know that for a while yet, but that certainly has been the trend the past couple of years.”

Lanter said FVTC’s Appleton campus has seen an increase of about 6% in students taking online classes.

“That is strictly online, where they don’t have to be present at any specific time,” she said. “At the same time, our face-to-face classes have increased drastically, whereas our virtual classes, where you’re face-to-face, but virtually (like a Zoom meeting-type setting), have declined quite a bit. So, what’s happened is we’ve had a switch from a virtual environment to more in-person, face-to-face classroom experiences.”

Increased interest in healthcare careers
Lanter said enrollment at the FVTC-Oshkosh campus has grown significantly.

She said part of this spike could be – in large part – due to the addition of the brand-new surgical technology (surg tech) associate’s degree program in Oshkosh.

“That program is booming with significant wait lists,” she said. “Something else that came with surg tech is brand-new science labs. So, now we also offer biology and microbiology, anatomy, and physiology in Oshkosh, which we never did before. So, that has also contributed to the increase of enrollment at the Oshkosh campus. And we’ve recently done a huge remodel of some space there.”

Lanter said it’s possible the increased interest in healthcare-related courses is connected to the understaffed healthcare industry, which is practically screaming for people.

“There is such a huge shortage of healthcare workers across the board, so we’re doing our best to help meet the need,” she said.

Lanter said interest in healthcare-related courses at the Appleton campus has also increased over the last 12 to 18 months – a correlation she connects to the shortage of staff because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

She said an advantage at FVTC is that many of the degree programs can be “laddered into” – for example, students can take a small certificate program, then all those credits can then be applied toward a tech diploma and/or could go toward an associate’s degree program.

Lanter said nursing is an immensely popular program at FVTC, and students often ladder into it by starting with a CNA program, eventually making their way to a nursing degree.

In addition to nursing, Lanter said there’s a significant amount of popularity in IT and cyber security, and business management – all of which can also be laddered into.

She said cosmetology and aesthetician classes, which can be taken in a salon, as well as massage therapy classes are all currently at capacity.

Similar to nationwide interests
The course offering statistics at area schools seems to be on par with the rest of the country.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, in the 2019-20 school year, more than two-thirds of the approximately one million associate’s degrees awarded to students fell into a handful of fields of studies: liberal arts and sciences, general studies and humanities; health professions and related programs; and business degrees.

Of the two million bachelor’s degrees awarded, 58% of them were in six fields of study – business; health professions and related programs; social sciences and history; engineering; biological and biomedical sciences; and psychology.

Burns said what sets UWGB apart from other institutions is that 30% of their students are part-time, which she said is a remarkably high number.

“In Green Bay and the Green Bay area, we have a lot of working adults who are interested in pursuing their education and a lot of our students, regardless of their age, do work,” she said. “That is where we see the future of higher education – more of a blended model of students working and attending school at the same time.”

In responde, Burns said UWGB is always thinking about other options that would best serve that population.

“Access is a huge part of our mission,” she said, “and we see online as a way of meeting those access needs, especially when we’re thinking about our whole region. We’ve seen more interest in online courses than in the past.”

In recent years, Burns said UWGB has seen significant growth in computer science, electrical and mechanical engineering, its nursing degree program and within the area of business, as well as finance, human resources, management, marketing, psychology and criminal justice. 

Career-ready focus before higher education
Lori Blakeslee, director of communications and public relations for the Green Bay Area Public School District, said it’s not just post-secondary schools striving to make students job-market ready.

Blakeslee said career planning is now required in all Wisconsin public schools.

“One of our goals is to get our students to graduate with 15 college credits or more,” she said. “We’ve been highly successful in having students achieve that goal. We know having those college credits is important, because by taking them in high school, it better prepares them for college. It can also help them with the financial cost of post-secondary education. So, we’re looking to provide more opportunities for them to get some college credit while still in high school.”

Blakeslee said in 2021, 14.8% of district students graduated with an industry credential, one of the highest percentages of students in the State of Wisconsin to graduate with an industry credential.

“We’re proud of that,” she said. “Likewise, 68% of our students graduated with at least one college credit, while 44% graduated with 15 or more credits.”

Blakeslee said the district offers many options to students to make them not only college-ready, but work-force ready – including a wide variety of classes that prepare them for college, an International Baccalaureate program, dual credit courses and advanced-placement courses. She said it also offers a rigorous engineering program with several diverse levels of engineering classes.

Blakeslee said Green Bay also has a handful of other historically-successful programs.

Higher education entities are seeing more students wanting to get through school and into the job market faster than in years past. Submitted Photo

Among them, the BRIDGES Construction and Renovation program – where students help build homes and do home renovations; the City Stadium Automotive program, where many students can leave high school with an associate’s degree or close to it when they graduate; and the Bay Link Manufacturing program where students can graduate with approximately 15 college credits.

Blakeslee said many who graduate from this program either go on to technical college or directly enter the workforce.
“Our automotive program has been extremely successful,” she said. “Many students are getting an apprenticeship in their senior year and often turn that into a full-time position after they graduate.”

The culinary arts and CNA programs at Green Bay, Blakeslee said, are also popular among students.

“Our CNA program has also been successful,” she said. “A lot of people entering that program have interest in a future medical career. This program is a great way for them to get some basic experience, plus many students will work as a CNA to help them pay for their college education.”

Blakeslee said the district is also becoming invested in urban agriculture, and student interest in this field is high.
In the program, students learn how food is grown, and they’re responsible for planting, maintaining and harvesting the crops themselves, with assistance from instructors, when and where needed.

“They have aquaponics and have installed growing machines so they can grow their own lettuce that then goes to the district’s food service department,” Blakeslee said. “Everyone’s trying to be more sustainable, but also being an urban school district, I think giving our kids that exposure to growing their own food and all the other aspects that go with that, is something that maybe our kids wouldn’t otherwise be exposed to. A lot of our elementary schools also do urban gardens at their schools and are raising their own vegetables and can be a part of where their food comes from.”

The Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development (DWD) is supporting things as well.

Prior to the start of the 2022-23 school year, the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development (DWD), together with Gov. Tony Evers, distributed more than $414,000 in grant funding specifically aimed at increasing the number of students in career and technical education programs.

Funded through the Wisconsin Fast Forward Program, the grants are expected to help prepare more than 1,400 students (including ones in Outagamie, Shawano and Sheboygan counties) for a wide range of high-wage, high-skill and high-demand careers.

“This latest round of funding will broaden educational and employment opportunities for some 1,400 students in more than a dozen rural and underserved communities statewide,” DWD Secretary-designee Amy Pechacek said. “These Wisconsin Fast Forward investments are part of DWD’s proven strategy to expand our future workforce with homegrown talent.”

Similarly, over the summer, the Wisconsin DWD launched its Hidden Talent Project at FVTC, which is utilizing $1.6 million in grant funds from the American Rescue Plan Act and the Worker Advancement Initiative to help refugees obtain their truck driving licenses.

Matt Valiquette, executive director of the Bay Area Workforce Development Board (BAWDB), said the initiative recognizes that employers are desperate for talent, and as a job convener, the BAWDB is doing its best to bring those partners together, while at the same time providing skilled-training opportunities to those seeking employment.

Seem to be in line
The trends higher-education entities are witnessing and the increased interest high schools are seeing in their trade classes, seem to be in line with the jobs the market is supporting.

Each year, the Wisconsin DWD ranks the state’s 50 hottest jobs based on which jobs have the most projected openings and salaries above the state’s median average.

In 2022, it lists truck drivers, manufacturing, general maintenance, registered nurses and production/operating as the state’s hottest jobs.

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