MADISON, WI. JUNE 15, 2021 – A unique training program that prepares students to be heavy equipment operators in just six weeks is the first winner of the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation’s (WEDC’s) Entrepreneurship Support Grants targeting programs working with diverse and underrepresented populations.
“SOFTEC Education is exactly the kind of program Wisconsin should invest in to help people get the training they need to be successful in the workforce,” Lt. Governor Mandela Barnes said. “It’s also a great community partnership between a nonprofit working with local high schools, a technical college, employers and unions to meet both job seekers’ needs and market demands.”
SOFTEC Education, based in Siren, will receive a $47,100 grant from WEDC to support its new entrepreneurship mentoring program, Barnes and WEDC Secretary and CEO Missy Hughes announced during a visit to the program today.
“SOFTEC was created to give young people a way to stay in far northwestern Wisconsin, where wages are often low and housing costs high,” Hughes said. “They have developed an innovative program that helps trainees get in-demand skills needed for jobs that pay higher wages and helps employers meet their need for heavy equipment operators. This new effort will offer residents a new way to build economic well-being in this region—by becoming entrepreneurs.”
Currently, SOFTEC uses a high-tech simulator to teach students how to operate heavy machinery such as excavators in just six weeks. Working with area employers and unions, many trainees are offered jobs before graduation, and the program aims to have all participants working within two weeks of graduation.
In the group’s entrepreneurship program, mentors will work one on one with students to draft their initial business plan. Students will attend entrepreneurship classes both online and onsite. Local banks will be providing financial literacy education and possible financing options, while students seeking managerial skills training can pursue additional courses through Northcentral Technical College.
The first entrepreneurship trainings will center around heavy equipment operating, handyman, painting and finishing businesses. If there is interest and demand, the group will add jewelry/metalworking to the program.
“We are incredibly grateful to all the support WEDC has provided to our SOFTEC program to date,” said Tim D’Jock, the program’s founder. “This grant opportunity is another great step to help instill the entrepreneurial spirit in northwest Wisconsin.”
SOFTEC has already made a difference in the lives of its graduates.
“It’s nice for the low-income family to send their high school graduate to a school … so they could get an education and a very nice paying job,” said Josh Hildreth, who graduated from SOFTEC late last month. “There’s nothing like the feeling of a dead end being overcome by an open door, and in a way, this whole school is a blessing.”
The program has also been successful at recruiting women into construction—a field where they are underrepresented—and is known for its work with Wisconsin’s Native American tribes.
“I could not see myself going to college, spending the money needlessly, not knowing exactly what I wanted to do,” says Carissa Forsythe, who was offered a full-time position before graduating from the SOFTEC Education program April 15. “At a young age, I always wanted to operate equipment because it looked fun.”
“Coming into this class with zero machine operating experience, I was very skeptical about learning this trade or even finishing the course,” said Conrad St. John, who graduated from SOFTEC at the end of May and was just elected to the St. Croix Chippewa Tribal Council. “The program was overwhelming the first couple of days, but the mixture of the simulator experience and online computer curriculum really helped me in the learning of this trade.”
In April, WEDC released the Wisconsin Tomorrow: Building an Economy for All report, which identified education and job skills training as one of the keys to Wisconsin’s economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic and creating an economy that allows everyone to prosper.
This is the first in a second round of new Capacity Building Entrepreneurship Support Grants WEDC will be announcing in coming weeks. This second round of grants was designed to help fund programs working with people of color, women or LGBTQ business owners, or entrepreneurs who are military veterans.