Wisconsin has been staking its claim as a center of skilled manufacturing since the 1860s.
And Blackhawk Technical College intends to help the state build on that legacy for generations
to come with a groundbreaking program to develop the new workforce skills Wisconsin
manufacturers need to remain competitive in the global economy.
While some of the state's earliest skilled manufacturing businesses emerged in Milwaukee --
steam engine producer Allis Co. (later Allis Chalmers) was founded in 1861 -- manufacturers in
Rock County were not far behind.
Thanks to the arrival of rail lines in the 1850s as well as the proximity to Chicago, Rock
County's industrial base grew steadily, starting with an iron works, a paper mill and agricultural
equipment producers. Parker Pen Co., which ultimately became a global pen manufacturer, was
founded in Janesville in 1888.
Blackhawk Technical College plays an important role in maintaining the region's skilled
manufacturing leadership. With locations in Janesville, Beloit and Monroe, the technical
college offers more than 75 programs that can lead to associate degrees, technical diplomas,
certificates and apprenticeships in fields such as business, manufacturing, health sciences,
computers and more.
Those offerings will expand in an important way this fall when Blackhawk launches a two-year
program that trains students as information technology specialists for advanced manufacturing
jobs. The program will complement the technical college's new Advanced Manufacturing
Center, the first phase of which is scheduled to open in Milton this fall.
"The face of manufacturing is changing nationally, regionally and locally," says Gary Kohn,
Blackhawk's marketing and communications manager. "Modernization is critical for survival.
And what's happening with respect to modernization is improved techniques in the plants – new
quality management systems, robotics, other intelligent systems."
In the modern manufacturing environment, skilled workers are needed for more than just
operating the increasingly complex machines, Kohn says. They need to be able to integrate,
program and fix the machines, as well.
Today's manufacturing equipment is being linked together through sophisticated computer
networks and operated from remote workstations. Kohn says the shift to this new, lean
environment puts a premium on workers skilled in information technology with knowledge of
both hardware and software.
College officials are quick to credit regional business and community leaders who serve on
various advisory groups for identifying the need for such cutting-edge training. Among them
is SSI Technologies of Janesville, a privately held company that designs and manufactures
sensors, sensor-based monitoring systems, digital gauges and powdered-metal components for
automotive and industrial applications.
"Our instructors are constantly getting feedback and seeking input" from industry, workers and
community members, Kohn says. "We've heard about the need from our community advisory
groups … This is going to be a program that should really gain a lot of traction because these
jobs are applicable in so many areas."
In developing new educational offerings that align with the emerging needs of the
manufacturing sector, Blackhawk Technical College is bettering opportunities for its students
while building workforce capacity for the future. If history shows anything, Kohn says, it's that
manufacturers and workers need to be adaptable.
"We use that word 'adaptability' with a lot of our programs,'' he says. "We want our welders to
be familiar with precision machining and we want our industrial mechanics to be able to weld.
Our HVAC students don't just fix air conditioning units; sometimes they have to build things
If Wisconsin is to maintain its heritage as a global center of skilled manufacturing in the New
Economy, advanced training such as the manufacturing information technology program offered
by Blackhawk Technical College will be key.
-- Sereno is a former business editor of the Wisconsin State Journal who has written about new economy
trends for various publications. Send email to email@example.com.