By Kurt Bauer
This column was first published in the July 2017 edition of Wisconsin Business Voice.
For the past several years I have given a lecture at Business World, the WMC Foundation’s unique summer camp that teaches high school students how to start and run a business. The curriculum goes beyond entrepreneurship and covers things like economic systems, ethics, financial literacy, career development, business etiquette and other topics our instructors and advisors think would be helpful to young people heading into the workforce or off to college.
My lecture is called “The Graduation Speech I Have Never Been Asked to Give.” In it I attempt to pass on the good advice shared with me by my grandparents, parents and various mentors. I also try to impart a few career and life lessons picked up along the way, like learn from other people’s mistakes, but when you inevitably do make a mistake, own it and–if possible–fix it.
This spring, I was asked to give an actual commencement address by Kaylen Betzig, the president of Waukesha County Technical College (WCTC). I didn’t immediately accept the offer.
Despite the fact I had the Business World lecture already prepared to use as a template and that I give scores of speeches to groups large and small each year, I was intimidated by the prospects of standing before a large gathering of graduates and their families and friends trying to say something relevant and meaningful to fit the occasion.
I feared I would come across as pretentious and preachy if I used my Business World lecture (apparently, I don’t care about being pretentious and preachy to high school kids). And as a card-carrying pessimist, saying something motivational or inspiring isn’t my forte.
But President Betzig offered some calming words of reassurance. “Did you attend your college graduation?” she asked during our phone conversation. “Yes,” I responded. “So did I. Do you remember who the speaker was?” she continued. “No,” I said. “Neither do I and neither will they,” Betzig lightheartedly told me.
Good point, I thought, so I agreed to give the speech, which largely focused on workforce trends, including how the labor shortage is pushing wages up and driving investment in robotics and artificial intelligence.
As it turned out, I got more out of the experience than I ever imagined. It was an inspiring day and helped put many things into perspective, especially given WMC’s strong emphasis in recent years on aligning Wisconsin’s post-secondary education efforts with the careers our economy is creating.
I am happy to report that WCTC and Wisconsin’s 15 other technical colleges are doing their part to fill the worker pipeline across multiple industry and business sectors. During the ceremony, WCTC awarded diplomas, certificates and degrees in many of the professions WMC members tell us are desperately needed, including mechanical engineering, metal fabrication, welding, automotive maintenance, building trades, CNC and machine tool operation, tool and die making, truck driving, electrical, millwright, accounting, business management, graphic design, culinary arts, computer support and network administration, hospitality, human resources, law enforcement and nursing.
Not all the WCTC graduates were considered traditional students. One started working toward his degree back in the 1970s, but life intervened and he never graduated until he went back and received his diploma nearly 40 years later. There was also a young woman who used the new dual enrollment to earn her high school diploma and her associate’s degree in the same month. Talk about having a head start in life!
I told the graduates that they had just received one of the best deals in post-secondary education that will reap a strong ROI for years to come. I also said that the degree they earned is relevant to today’s workplace, respected by employers and cost effective to both them and the taxpayer.
I concluded by congratulating them not just on their graduation, but on the institution of higher learning in which they chose to pursue their vocation. They should be proud of their accomplishment and know they are helping to solve Wisconsin’s skills gap literally one person at a time.