Responding to workplace needs for 100 years by Dan Clancy
The Wisconsin Technical College System (WTCS) is celebrating its 100th anniversary. As a system, however, we’re actually celebrating the fact that the technical colleges have been making futures for 100 years. Within the tradition of Wisconsin’s Technical Colleges, much has changed, but our principles have remained the same. Our commitment to our industry and community partners keeps our colleges as vibrant and relevant as ever. These relationships help Wisconsin continue to compete with top states in manufacturing, agriculture, energy and the availability of skilled workers.
The basis for the technical colleges’ inception and still the mission to this day is matching real-world education to the needs of a constantly changing economy. In 1911, Wisconsin was the first state to create a system to provide high-quality occupational training opportunities. The education landscape has changed tremendously since the beginning of the “continuation schools,” or technical colleges, as we know them today. In those days, it was common for students to drop out of high school to work full-time. Over time, these workers found that their lack of education limited their ability to contribute and advance in the workplace.
Working with employers, our technical colleges provided the relevant education these students would need for success on the job. Many of the training opportunities were in areas like millinery (hat making), baking, telegraphy, horseshoeing and sheet metal manufacturing. At the time, these students were using the latest technology and obtaining specific skills employers depended upon.
These days, our mission has expanded to provide education that may articulate into a 4-year college or university program, but the majority of our 400,000 students enroll in programs focused on specific career or technical occupation. Our colleges continue to prepare employees with critical workplace skills. Students learn alongside instructors with real-world experience and develop their expertise with the latest equipment and industry practices used in the workplace.
For this entire past century, our graduates excelled in critical occupations we all rely upon daily. As technology expands and employers increasingly adapt to compete, our graduates fill contemporary jobs in areas like firefighting, robotics, radiography, web design, welding, nursing, auto mechanics, clinical technology and energy efficiency. The technical colleges currently offer over 300 programs in every industry sector around the state.
Even in the current economy, Wisconsin Technical College System graduates have great opportunities to pursue family-supporting careers. Of the 26,000 WTCS graduates in 2010, 88 percent were employed within six months of graduation and three out of four were employed in a job specifically related to their training.
The key to our students’ employability is the technical college tradition of responsiveness. Our employer-partnerships are as critical today as they were in the early 1900s. Business and industry representatives serve on college advisory committees, evaluating existing programs and developing new ones to satisfy industry and technology changes. Requiring instructors to have both teaching and industry experience ensures our curriculum and teaching methods provide practical, hands-on learning experiences. Working with industry and community partners to provide state of the art facilities and equipment enables graduates to enter the workforce job-ready. The jobs may have changed, but our nationally recognized model for preparing students for them is very much the same.
In fact, today’s economy increasingly demands technical education. The Georgetown Center “Pathways to Prosperity Report” projects 14 million job openings over the next seven years will require a technical college degree or training. National leaders increasingly commend technical education as a critical component in workforce development and our nation’s competitive success in a global economy. That’s why our graduates are finding jobs and why Wisconsin is faring better than many other states in the economic recovery.
No one can predict what the next 100 years will bring, but it will certainly include new technologies, changing workplace needs and a continuing vital partnership between employers and the technical colleges to ensure Wisconsin’s future economic success. That is something to celebrate.
Mr. Clancy is president of the Wisconsin Technical College System, which has enhanced the futures of more than half of Wisconsin’s adult population over the last ten years.