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Knowledge can help solve state’s workforce paradox

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James R. Morgan
June 25, 2012

Manufacturing, and manufacturing careers, have been getting much coverage lately.


Employers have made desperate pleas for skilled workers. There’s heightened awareness of the value manufacturing brings to communities. And there’s slowly growing recognition of the innovation and intelligence that goes into today’s manufacturing jobs. Gov. Walker has launched his College and Career Readiness Council, and President Obama and his education secretary have been extolling the virtues of college and career readiness.


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


But let’s not let old paradigms drive future needs for qualified workers.


We know that about 30 percent of Wisconsin’s jobs will require bachelor’s degrees or more. That means 70 percent don’t. The vast majority of those require technical education beyond high school. What seems to be missing is a broad understanding by today’s students of available jobs. They simply cannot select occupations they don’t know exist. They don’t know what a welder does; they don’t know what a CNC operator is; they’ve never been inside a modern, advanced-manufacturing facility; and they lack accurate job data and salary information. The same applies to parents. All of us—businesses, educators, parents, media—should share that blame.


The WMC Foundation recently conducted more than 50 listening sessions with more than 300 manufacturers around Wisconsin. We’ve been sharing what we heard. One thing that became clear is that we must change the definition of “success.”


As a parent, you want your children to be healthy and happy, doing something they love and living comfortably. Isn’t that most people’s definition of success? This is America, and everyone should be encouraged to pursue a passion. However, we owe students a reality check and perhaps even a “Job Probability Index”—what are the odds they’ll find jobs in their chosen field? We should discuss the passion they wish to pursue, provide information on what it will take to reach it, explore costs involved, evaluate the job prospects upon completion, study the level of demand for their degrees/careers, look at salary expectations and consider the return on investment.


If all 16-year-olds and their parents have all this information and fully understand and have open minds to all occupations available, we’ll work through this shortage. Currently though, our definition of success seems driven by a mentality that master’s degrees are better than bachelor’s degrees, bachelor’s degrees are better than technical degrees, and technical degrees are better than work experience. The workplace isn’t that linear and easily defined.


We have shortages of engineers, welders, CNC operators, machinists, masons. Some of those require work experience, some apprenticeships, some technical degrees, some four-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.


James R. Morgan is president of the Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce Foundation and vice president of WMC; website wmc.org; phone (608) 258-3400.

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