South Central Wisconsin was hit hard by the Great Recession, and a series of devastating floods in 2008 added economic insult to injury.
“The disruption to our economy was phenomenal, and one of the hardest hit areas was manufacturing,” says John Lalor, the Economic Development Administration liaison for Madison Area Technical College. “We wanted to bring back advanced manufacturing.” So Madison College applied for and was awarded a federal Economic Development Administration grant to help build an advanced manufacturing workforce.
Lalor retired from Madison College in 2008, but he came back in 2011 to coordinate the grant. Some of the grant money was used to establish new classes to retrain existing employees in areas such as programmable logic controllers, computer numeric controls and robotics.
But Lalor knew that the region needed more. “How can we build something that would last beyond that grant?” he asked. “How can I best approach this?”
The answers to those questions lay in the creation of the Northern Region Advisory Council, which will continue to serve the community well after the federal grant has expired.
Responding to industry’s concerns
The council, established by the college in 2012, includes school district administrators, economic development leaders and representatives from local manufacturing companies. Most importantly, Lalor says, the council is driven by the manufacturers’ agenda.
The council has established the following goals:
- Develop cooperative plans for joint local ventures. How can companies work together?
- Develop and share best practices. “Companies would be across the street from each other and not know what the other was doing,” Lalor says.
- Share a vision as well as implementation strategies for local manufacturers to improve the culture and study of manufacturing.
- Organize a voice on local issues affecting manufacturing. “How do we lobby for what we need? Now there’s a voice that goes to the county board or city council, together, in this region,” Lalor says.
One immediate problem the council faced was encouraging high school students to attend Madison College after graduation to train for local manufacturing jobs. Employers were concerned about the pipeline from high school to college to workforce, Lalor says.
In response, council members met with the boards of the 17 school districts to change perceptions about the modern manufacturing industry and discuss the area’s skills gap. Council members shared the technical and soft skills students need to enter the local manufacturing workforce prepared.
Additionally, the council hosted career days for K-12 staff and provided “guided manufacturing” opportunities, during which teachers and staff from each school district spent a day visiting various manufacturing plants. This has allowed participants to have more in-depth conversations with students and parents about today’s manufacturing career opportunities. “They didn’t know or understand what was happening in the industry or at the technical college,” Lalor says, “so they weren’t offering it as an option.”
The council also established a youth apprenticeship program for high school students. During their junior and senior years, students work in manufacturing plants and earn credits at Madison College.
One partner company is offering high school graduates two years of free technical college education, along with a simultaneous part-time job, if they commit to work for the company two years after graduation, Lalor says.
Since the council began, more students are considering manufacturing, but “we are not satisfied yet,” Lalor says. “When I really do retire, my goal is that I can step away, and it’s going to continue to improve.”