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Thursday, April 10, 2014

Jennifer Sereno: Demand for IT skills signals next advance in modern manufacturing


By Jennifer Sereno
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.

More recently, Rock County has weathered a number of manufacturing-related challenges, including closure of the General Motors assembly plant in 2008. However, manufacturing remains the county's third-largest source of employment, accounting for some 14 percent of jobs, according to the state Department of Workforce Development.

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 requiring machining."

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 sereno.jennifer@gmail.com.

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