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You Can't Legislate Career Choices . . . Can You?

By Jim Morgan, President, WMC Foundation
January 2013

Someone sent me the following headline after listening to one of my presentations on the workforce paradox this past spring: “China to Cancel College Majors That Don’t Pay.” The Chinese Ministry of Education’s criteria for reducing or eliminating college majors includes consecutive years with a graduate employment rate below 60 percent. Communism is nothing if not efficient!

Obviously, that is not an approach that would gain traction in the United States, where we value freedom of choice, continuing education and look for well-rounded individuals. Having said that, we have an immense challenge ahead of us if we are going to match employee education and skill sets with employer needs.

Right now in Wisconsin, we know about 30 percent of the jobs require a bachelor’s degree or more. That means 70 percent do not, though the majority of those require more than a high school degree. In other words, technical skills. And, here is the most puzzling part: those jobs are currently available, pay well above the average wage, are the heart of innovation and entrepreneurism and are the key to Wisconsin’s long-term economic success. This should not be so difficult!

The WMC Foundation has led the charge in raising awareness about manufacturing and the high-quality jobs that exist. We have extolled the virtues of industry and its direct link to the state’s economic foundation. And we have preached, prodded and pushed parents, students and counselors to learn about the financially rewarding and intellectually challenging careers in advanced manufacturing.

We have made progress!

We had October declared as “Manufacturing Month” and it resulted in companies opening their doors to students, teachers and parents to see first-hand what modern manufacturing looks like. Local chambers of commerce spread the word in communities throughout Wisconsin and we worked with many of them to engage educators and employers in finding solutions.

Many of you shared your best practices with us and we have, in turn, shared them with others. There has been better and more frequent communication between manufacturers and educational institutions (K-12, tech colleges) throughout the state leading to more work-based experiences, apprenticeships and internships. Media outlets, social and traditional, have reported on the shortage and skill mismatch.

Going forward, legislators and the Governor are reviewing reports by Tim Sullivan, former CEO of Bucyrus, Competitive Wisconsin and the Wisconsin Technical College System to find policy solutions. A few that have intrigued WMC include:

  • Coordinated data system linking workforce and career information with educational and job counseling so we can better match what is needed with what is produced
  • Better career planning for students throughout their K-12 experience
  • Investment in competitive training dollars for Wisconsin’s technical colleges that can prove need and documented success in placing students
  • Coordination of all job training dollars and programs under one council
  • Focus on science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) and career and technical education
  • Core credit transfers between K-12, technical colleges and the UW system
  • Rationalization (and possible simplification) of all programs aimed at providing work experience for students
  • Quality metrics for all training and annual review of success
  • Encourage better and frequent communication between manufacturers and educational institutions (K-12, tech colleges)
  • Encourage manufacturers and educational institutions to partner on apprenticeships and internship programs

While I don’t believe you can legislate career choices, and I don’t see us going the route of China, we can do our best to support policies that expose people to the options available and educate them on career paths that both match their passions and lead to viable, family-supporting jobs.

At the end of the day, no one would argue with having a well-educated citizenry. Education opens doors. However, it is the means, not the end. Ultimately, an employable, productive and continuously learning individual is the goal. As employers, all of us have a role in making that happen… and that is how we will solve the skills gap.

Related Material:  Wisconsin Business Voice


Solving the Workforce Paradox

By Jim Morgan, President, WMC Foundation
April 2012

Manufacturing, and manufacturing careers, have been getting quite a bit of coverage lately.

Employers have made desperate pleas for skilled workers. There is a heightened awareness of the value manufacturing brings to a community. And, there is a growing, albeit slowly, recognition of the innovation and intelligence that goes into today’s manufacturing jobs. Governor Walker has launched his College and Career Readiness Council and the President and his Education Secretary have also been extolling the virtues of college and career readiness.

That is all good. Manufacturing is critical to the future success of Wisconsin. Not only for the 425,000 employed in the sector, but for the hundreds of thousands that exist because of manufacturing. No other sector has the job multiplier effect that manufacturing does.

But let’s not let old paradigms drive our future needs for a qualified workforce.

We know that about 30 percent of the jobs in Wisconsin will require a bachelor’s degree or more. That means 70 percent do not, with the vast majority of those requiring technical education beyond high school. What seems to be missing in the current system is a broad understanding by today’s students of the jobs available. They simply cannot select an occupation that they don’t know exists. They do not know what a welder does; they do not know what a CNC Operator is; they have never seen the inside of a modern day, advanced manufacturing facility; and they do not have accurate job data and salary information. The same applies to their parents. And all of us (business, educators, parents, media) should share that blame.

The WMC Foundation recently conducted more than 50 listening sessions with over 300 manufacturers from around Wisconsin. Since completing that road trip, we have been sharing what we heard. One thing that became clear is that we need to change the definition of “success.” As a parent, you want your children to be healthy and happy, doing something they love, and able to live comfortably. Isn’t that most people’s definition of success? This is America, and everyone should be encouraged to pursue their passion. However, we owe students a reality check and perhaps even a “Job Probability Index” – what are the odds they will find a job in their chosen field. We should discuss the passion they wish to pursue, provide information on what it will take to reach it, explore the costs involved, evaluate the job prospects upon completion, study the level of demand for their degree/career, look at salary expectations and consider the return on investment.

If every 16-year-old, and their parents, have all this information and a full understanding of (and open mind to) all the occupations available, we will work through this shortage. Currently though, our definition of success seems driven by a mentality that master’s degree is better than bachelor’s degree, bachelor’s degree is better than technical degree, and technical degree is better than work experience. The workplace is not that linear and easily defined. Right now, there are shortages of engineers, welders, CNC operators, machinists, masons. Some of those require work experience, some apprenticeships, some technical degrees, some 4-year degrees or more. Let’s make sure everyone knows the market, because the market will drive us to success.

As we focus on “college and career readiness,” we might want to put “career” first.

Related Material:  Wisconsin Business Voice