Panel: Employers need to involve themselves in skills gap solutions

If Wisconsin fixes its long-term skills gap problem, it’s going to be because employers help students early to figure out their best career options, according to a panel.

That’s already happening in several places around Wisconsin, said Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce President Tim Sheehy. But more and more employers need to help policymakers and schools ensure Wisconsin has enough skilled workers in the future, he said.

“Employers have to get much more embedded in the decisions that are being made much earlier,” Sheehy said at a WisPolitics luncheon last week. “Because they’re the only ones that know where this economy is going fast enough.”

The panel discussion, at the UW-Milwaukee Innovation Accelerator in Wauwatosa, also included Lt. Gov Rebecca Kleefisch and Milwaukee Area Technical College President Vicki Martin.

The three listed several collaborations they’ve seen, naming companies from the boat engine maker Mercury Marine to trucking company Schneider National that are investing in classrooms and exposing students to careers in those fields.

The issue, Kleefisch said, is clear. Look at the Department of Workforce Development’s Job Center of Wisconsin website, which shows there are more than 90,000 jobs available.

It affects everyone from Wisconsin’s legacy manufacturers to software companies such as Verona’s Epic Systems and Stevens Point’s Skyward, she said.

“We need to make sure we’re producing the types of workers these companies need in order to be convinced to remain in Wisconsin forever,” she said.

She also pointed to the state’s efforts to solve the issue, from the most recent WEDC grant program that helps schools establish fabrication labs to the state’s efforts to expand apprenticeships and dual enrollment in college classes for high school students.

She called for more people to be “evangelists” for all the options people can turn to as they find jobs.

Among them is the new MATC Promise program that covers tuition and fees for Milwaukee-area high school graduates, Martin said. The program is aimed at bringing down the largest barrier of entry into higher education: its cost.

But it won’t by itself solve some of the issues that industries are facing, Martin said, noting MATC’s partnerships to help get people interested in fields from construction to IT security, which is “going to be really important for our city and for our whole economy in the future.”

It’s more than just technical skills, she added, noting that companies look for “soft skills” such as critical thinking. Colleges also need to help address the several obstacles students face outside of school, such as hunger and homelessness, she said.

“We have to make sure that the students have the credentials they need,” she said. “But they need to have all those wrap-around support services and good career planning to really be a productive value employee.”

But the three agreed employer involvement will be key going forward, such as a program at MATC that taught Girl Scouts about welding. Or it’s the MMAC program with Milwaukee Public Schools that’s getting its 7th graders visiting companies to talk about opportunities there, Sheehy said.

“This is a massive problem … and it’s going to take all of us — the state government, the technical colleges, the 4-years and the business community — working together at what is an unprecedented problem we’re facing over the next 20 to 30 years,” Sheehy said.

— By Polo Rocha,