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Thursday, February 27, 2014

Jennifer Sereno: Expansion plans at Exact Sciences highlight value of new DWD worker training program


By Jennifer Sereno
Applications open March 1 for next round of employer-led training grants

With plans for a major clinical testing laboratory in Madison and FDA review underway on its novel colon cancer screening test, Exact Sciences (Nasdaq: EXAS) holds significant potential to accelerate the region's economy.

Kevin Conroy, company president and CEO, says the award of two Wisconsin Fast Forward training grants earlier this month will help the company achieve its next milestone. The funds for Exact Sciences and some two dozen other recent grantees are part of a major initiative by the state Department of Workforce Development under Secretary Reggie Newson to complement existing technical training programs and channel new skills into Wisconsin's workforce.

"The concept of a skills pipeline is an important one," Conroy says. "We're appreciative that state government is focused on helping companies become more competitive in the global economy."

Gov. Scott Walker signed the Wisconsin Fast Forward program into law in March 2013 following its near-unanimous approval by the Legislature. Under the program, companies match the state training funds at levels ranging from 50 cents up to one dollar for every dollar received, depending on the specific grant. The next round of applications for funding totaling $7.5 million will open March 1 with information sessions scheduled statewide to encourage participation.

In the case of Exact Sciences, the two grants totaling $325,106 will be used to train more than 200 new employees to launch the colon cancer screening facility. The expanded operation will require a variety of high-level skills and the first grant will help train lab technicians in sample preparation and shipping, operation of the robotic screening systems and use of new software to generate lab reports.

The second grant will help train another group from the pool of new hires to work in a contact center assisting physicians with ordering tests and retrieving results from a Web portal. While many of the new employees may come equipped with training from various technical college programs, the unique nature of the Exact Sciences technology, robotic specimen processing and physician interface will require training at a level not currently available in the state.

"The facility will be capable of handling 1 million patient samples per year" and must comply with Good Laboratory Practice standards, Conroy says. The training will require the involvement of clinical laboratory experts, robotics industry consultants and medical professionals.

The company is currently working to develop the training program as the FDA approval process continues. Exact Sciences currently employs about 85.

Scott Jansen, director of the Office of Skills Development for DWD and leader of the Wisconsin Fast Forward effort, says the team that developed the grant program and the bipartisan group of legislators that supported it could never have envisioned the specific needs of a company such as Exact Sciences.

And that's exactly the point. Rather than picking winners and losers in the New Economy, the agency has identified broad industry categories with high growth potential and developed a scoring system to award the total $15 million available over two years in a way that expands the state's capacity for innovation.

"The best thing about this is, we're not just doing the Fast Forward granting program, we've become a kind of clearinghouse, connecting employers with pockets of talent they may not have known about," Jansen says. "This is a complementary program to the technical training that exists in the state today," and in some cases the local technical college will be brought in to help implement a specialized training program.

Beyond moving workers with existing technical capabilities higher up on the skills ladder, Wisconsin Fast Forward also seeks to expand the opportunities available to those without jobs. In the first round of funding, awards to organizations including the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Wisconsin and Operation Fresh Start focus on training unemployed and underemployed individuals for jobs in welding and construction.

How will taxpayers know whether the program is ultimately successful?

"We will be able to study wage data that employers already report to the state's unemployment insurance program to evaluate the effectiveness of the participating employers' individual training programs," Jansen says. "We're building the infrastructure and letting the thought leadership occur in the marketplace, then evaluating" the performance of the program.

That's a welcome approach for companies such as Exact Sciences.

"Other states and other countries are competing very aggressively," Conroy says. "We need to stay focused on high-paying, high-skilled jobs if our region is going to grow into the future."

Wisconsin Fast Forward sets sights on additional industries for second round of funding

Following DWD's evaluation of labor market growth and inquiries for worker training, Scott Jansen of the Office of Skills Development says funding for the second round of Wisconsin Fast Forward grants will be available in the following sectors:
* Health care and related occupations, $2 million;
* Information technology occupations, $1.5 million;
* Transportation, logistics and distribution occupations, $1 million;
* Financial services occupations, $1 million;
* Manufacturing occupations, $1 million;
* Construction trades and related occupations, $500,000; and
* $500,000 available to small businesses with 50 or fewer full-time employees.


-- 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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