• WisBusiness

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Tech colleges ready to help in economic downturn


By Jennifer Sereno
Wisconsin's technical colleges are on a roll and that's good news for the future of our state -- not to mention the tens of thousands of students who will benefit from a bigger paycheck after graduation.

Policy makers have long known that a better-educated, better-trained work force attracts new businesses and stimulates job growth. But the main reason most people attend one of Wisconsin's 16 technical colleges is because they know the experience will virtually guarantee them a better job and a higher salary.

Dan Clancy, president of the Wisconsin Technical College System, says enrollment in two-year associate degree programs, technical certificate offerings and custom training typically mirrors the economy.

"As unemployment increases, more individuals turn to us for education and training and we've certainly seen tremendous growth in enrollments over the past year," Clancy says. "But even when the economy was good a few years back, our enrollments were still growing. It indicates to us that the whole idea of upgrading skills and staying current with your field -- lifelong learning -- has become a necessity."

The enrollment growth has been particularly notable in areas of Wisconsin hard hit by layoffs. Blackhawk Technical College, serving the Janesville area and Mid-State, serving Wisconsin Rapids, have seen double-digit increases over the past year. For the system as a whole, 2008-09 enrollment is up 4 percent over the prior academic year. It's up 25 percent over the past decade.

Clancy says the system calculates the figures based on full-time student equivalents because so many students take a few classes part-time while working or sharing family responsibilities. So, this year's equivalent of 73,000 full-time students represents some 400,000 people actually being served.

The need for flexibility as traditional students and returning adults try to balance work and other responsibilities has not been lost on the technical college system's leaders. Clancy says most campuses have been adding night and weekend class sections as well as online and accelerated course options.

At the same time, the system has been working closely with regional employers and labor groups to make sure that its programs are relevant. The process has gotten a big boost from the Obama administration's economic stimulus package.

A significant portion of the money flowing from the federal government into the state's regional workforce development boards is earmarked for job training and education. The workforce development boards, which also work closely with regional employers to learn about employment needs, then contract with the local technical colleges to provide appropriate programs.

Clancy says some of the stimulus money has encouraged the development of curriculum focusing on energy and utilities, conservation and construction. Creating a work force with these skills will help pave the way for the growth of green businesses, he says. Even now, in the Wisconsin Rapids area, Energy Composites Corp. is working on plans for a wind turbine factory and predicts a need for up to 400 employees.

"Our colleges are looking closely at the whole field of green and renewable energy, while some are specializing in wind and biofuels," he says. "Also, just utility work in general has been a strong area of demand. People are being hired in electrical power distribution," where there is a need for increased transmission capacity and system upgrades.

The technical college system also ensures a steady supply of workers for the state's more traditional industries. For example, while the auto industry may be slumping, other Wisconsin manufacturers have achieved significant gains in efficiency and are performing well against the odds. Clancy says campuses in the northeastern part of the state are continuing to see a strong demand for graduates from welding programs.

For other students, particularly returning adults who have experienced a layoff or are considering a career change, the technical college system can offer help with computer literacy as well as math and science refresher courses. Such coursework may be needed for a transition into a number of better-paying jobs in health care and information technology fields.

Speaking of money, Clancy says the technical college system tracks the starting salaries and employment rates of students through surveys sent out six months after graduation. The latest survey, which captured the experiences of 16,574 students for a 72 percent response rate, showed nine out of 10 graduates (91 percent) were employed within six months.

Even better: the median annual salary for students graduating with a two-year associate degree was $36,192, with many individual fields commanding significantly higher wages. Dental hygienists averaged $51,970, while graduates in diagnostic medical sonography earned $50,046. Students with a one-year technical diploma in electrical power distribution reported annual salaries averaging $49,916.

For more information, view this year's report at http://www.wtcsystem.edu/reports/data/graduate/index.htm

-- Sereno, former business editor of the Wisconsin State Journal, is a senior manager at Wood Communications Group in Madison. E-mail jenny.sereno@wcgpr.com or call (608) 770-8084.

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