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Clancy interview: Outgoing WTCS president reflects on state tech school needs

By Brian E. Clark
For WisBusiness.com

Dan Clancy, the retiring head of Wisconsin’s technical colleges, says his successor will need to advocate for greater funding as the system’s 16 campuses push to close the so-called skills gap between what graduates know and what employers are demanding.

Still, Clancy, whose last day is Sept. 14, said he thinks his colleges are doing a good job of adapting to changing needs and preparing some students to go on to four-year colleges, including those in the University of Wisconsin system.

Right now Clancy said he's busy drafting a budget proposal for the 2013-2015 biennium.

“Our board will definitely be requesting additional funds,” he said. “I’ll have it to the point of being approved by the board, but my successor will have to shepherd it through the Legislature and governor.”

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The 2011-13 budget cut state aid to the tech schools by 30 percent, or $71.6 million, over two years.

Clancy is optimistic funding will increase, but he said legislators need to understand that for every dollar invested in tech schools, there is a return of $6.

“I think this coming budget will be better than the last, now that the state is in better fiscal shape,” he said. “My guess is there will be funds for some priority areas, including workforce development ... and solving the skills gap.”

Clancy said he also hopes to get increased support for scholarships from the state Higher Education Aids Board.

“We’ve made that a high priority, too,” he said. “That’s been a significant issue for our students, the ability to afford a technical college education.”

Clancy, 57, became president of the tech schools in 2004. Before that, he was the system’s vice president for finance and policy, directing budget development, legislative relations and policy analysis, among other things. A native of Detroit, he worked for the state of Wisconsin for more than three decades, including 17 years with the Legislative Fiscal Bureau.

Clancy said the “workforce paradox” -- where companies have jobs available but can't find the workers to fill them -- is a national issue. He said the guv and other state leaders have made solving this problem a top priority.

“All states are facing a similar dilemma,” he said. “There are jobs to be filled, but employers say there is a mismatch between what they need and what people are bringing to the table.”

He said this is most common at Wisconsin’s advanced manufacturing companies. For example, they are demanding workers with high-tech skills to run numeric-controlled machines and do sophisticated welding.

“They are finding they have to do extra training,” he said. “They would like to have candidates go through a tech college program, either one or two years. But we are having difficulty attracting people to those fields."

He said many prospective employees do not understand how modern manufacturing has changed and have an image of an industry that may not have a strong economic future.

“It’s not the old industrial work setting that it was 30 years ago,” Clancy said. “It’s cleaner, more comfortable and it’s high-tech. But parents and students may not understand that.”

He said tech schools and employers need to explain today’s manufacturing environment and the salaries those jobs have. In addition, he said today’s students need to have a stronger background in math and science in high school and a better understanding of how to use technology, as well as so-called “soft skills” needed for employment in the modern workplace.

To meet employers’ demands, he said tech colleges have changed curricula, breaking down courses into shorter components so students can, for example, attend a “boot camp” in which they get a certificate in the basics of modern welding.

This gets workers on the “first rung” of the employment ladder without needing to be in school for a long time, he said.

“Then they’ll need to come back and get additional training so they can advance on the job,” Clancy said. “We call that career pathways. It really helps people who have lost their jobs, especially older workers who want get employed again fast. It helps on the employers’ side, too, because they need workers quickly, too.”

In many cases, he said manufacturers are willing to pay to train those workers.

“So we are very flexible on when we offer that kind of training, at night and on weekends and online,” he said, noting that some companies are doing their own advanced training after tech schools have taught them the basics.

Looking back, Clancy said he is proud of the work he’s done to foster increased cooperation between tech school and the UW System, with greater opportunities for students to transfer credits into upper division programs.

He said Wisconsin’s vocational colleges have handled significant growth well, with the population now at more than 400,000 – an increase of roughly 40 percent in full-time-equivalent students.

“Based on who we have been serving the last four or five years, we have helped thousands and thousands of people who lost their jobs get retrained. They want to have a family-sustaining job and career.

“And for students, especially in rural areas, tech school training can be life changing,” he said. “That’s pretty amazing.”

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