Expanding Career Training for People in Distressed Communities: A Wisconsin Technical College Success Story
Partnerships with Industry Clarify Career Pathways
A key economic factor that led to the election of Donald Trump is the decadeslong decline of U.S. manufacturing jobs and the subsequent displacement of thousands of workers concentrated in Midwestern and Rust Belt states. A cursory look at the electoral map reveals entire communities that were devastated by the loss of production work.
Although a massive resurgence of manufacturing jobs is unlikely due to automation, manufacturing remains one of the largest sectors of the U.S. economy. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than 15 million Americans are employed in manufacturing, and almost 40 percent are in production occupations, like welding and machining. Additionally, the National Association of Manufacturers reports that 3.5 million manufacturing jobs will be needed over the next decade, and that two million of these jobs could go unfilled due to the skills gap.
Community and technical colleges are a critical asset for the country to train workers for future manufacturing jobs, which require more robust and comprehensive technical skills than the production jobs of the past. And career pathways represent a proven method to deliver training in a timely way that meets industry needs. Our recent evaluation of a statewide Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career Training (TAACCCT) grant program in Wisconsin documented the impact of career pathways with stacked and latticed credentials on participants’ credential attainment and employment.
The goal of the consortium was to increase the attainment of industry-recognized and industry-valued certifications, certificates, diplomas, and other credentials that better prepare program participants for high-skill, high-wage employment or re-employment in manufacturing careers. We found that 48 percent of participants earned postsecondary credentials, while only 30 percent of a matched comparison group earned a postsecondary credential. Stacked and latticed manufacturing pathways helped participants earn more postsecondary credentials and earn them more quickly in three manufacturing areas: welding, machine tool/CNC, and industrial maintenance. In addition, 33 percent of worker participants who were not previously employed gained employment within three months after program exit, compared with 29 percent of the matched comparison group.
The effectiveness of career pathways in Wisconsin is a result of successful partnerships between businesses and technical colleges. By leveraging resources from the federal TAACCCT grant program, the technical colleges expanded and modified career pathways in advanced manufacturing pathways with stacked and latticed credentials that aligned with labor market demand. During the four-year grant period, technical colleges trained 3,795 unique participants, which was 143 percent of their performance objective.
More than one-third of the technical colleges implemented short-term training offerings or embedded a short-term technical diploma in one or more manufacturing areas. For example, Nicolet Area Technical College offered a 16-credit short-term technical diploma in welding that reflected the first semester of the oneyear welding technical diploma program.
Wisconsin Indianhead Technical College, by comparison, packaged five embedded technical diplomas within its one-year welding program, providing students the opportunity to learn one or more specific welding techniques that were identified as in-demand by local employers; these five embedded technical diplomas stack to a one-year welding technical diploma. Thus, not only were students served in rural areas of the state, they participated in training programs that were designed to meet employer needs.
Students in urban areas of Wisconsin also benefited from career pathways in advanced manufacturing. For example, Milwaukee Area Technical College (MATC) developed a Bridge 101 program in welding and machine tool, with considerable input from a regional manufacturing employers group (the Manufacturing Career Partnership) that wanted a common set of competencies and skills for entry-level workers. Bridge 101 students earn 10 credits over a 10-week period, are awarded a local certificate from the college, and are prepared for entry-level employment. These students can apply their credits to the college’s welding and machine tool programs of study when they choose to continue their education and training. These short-term training programs targeted students with low basic skills and provided enhanced support services to participants that resulted in a more diverse set of students than typically enrolled in manufacturing programs: 79 percent of grant participants at MATC were non-white compared with 60 percent of all manufacturing students at the college.
Wisconsin’s career pathways in advanced manufacturing represent a model for closing the skills gap and putting people to work – in rural and urban environments. Our evaluation is an important reminder of the strong asset that community and technical colleges represent for displaced workers who were left behind by automation. Community and technical colleges have proven themselves time and again with their ability to create a skilled workforce that meets local and regional labor market needs.
Wendy Sedlak a senior director at Equal Measure (www.equalmeasure.org). Her background is in applied research and program evaluation, with a particular focus on social policy research and evaluation in the areas of social mobility, community health, housing, education and workforce development.
Derek Price is principal owner of DVP- PRAXIS LTD (www.dvp-praxis.org) and is a national leader in strategic thinking for institutional transformation and systems change. He has a strong policy, research, and evaluation background, and works on a broad range of policy and practice issues around postsecondary education and workforce development.