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Northeast Wisconsin Technical College extends partnership with local shipbuilder to address skilled trade shortage

97 people completed the program last year, with 160 more expected this year

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A welding student from Fincantieri Bay Shipbuilding participates in a training program offered by Northeast Wisconsin Technical College
A welding student from Fincantieri Bay Shipbuilding participates in a training program offered by Northeast Wisconsin Technical College aimed at helping the company address a shortage of skilled tradespeople. Photo courtesy of Northeast Wisconsin Technical College

A tech school in northeast Wisconsin is expanding a partnership with a local boat builder to help address the company’s need for skilled trade workers.

Northeast Wisconsin Technical College, or NWTC, partnered with Fincantieri Bay Shipbuilding out of Sturgeon Bay last year to offer a specialized training program for the ship builder’s employees in welding and ship/pipe-fitting.

Since the program’s launch, 97 people have completed the course, offered through the NWTC Sturgeon Bay campus. Officials said it provides an entry point to becoming a skilled tradesperson.

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Jim Draeger, dean of corporate training and economic development at Northeast Wisconsin Technical College, said the college worked with Fincantieri Bay Shipbuilding’s production managers to develop the five-week program for entry-level employees.

“These folks came in with next to no skills and (the program) got them ready to go right into the shipyard where they can have a family-sustaining job and can start their career,” Draeger said. “They’re no longer just laborers, these folks are on their way towards a career in shipbuilding.”

He said the program mirrors a similar partnership the college has formed with Fincantieri Marinette Marine. The success of the partnership’s first year caused both organizations to extend the program, and the company and college are in early stages of developing additional training programs.

“We’ve got critical needs — we need more skilled tradespeople,” said Eric Dent, director of communications for Fincantieri Bay Shipbuilding. “It’s great that we have a community-based solution through this agreement.”

In today’s tight labor market, Draeger said employer-driven workforce development programs, like this partnership, are critical for companies to meet their employment needs.

“The employers that are being successful through this shortage are ones just like Bay Shipbuilding — they’re investing in their workforce,” he said.

Dent added that Fincantieri Bay Shipbuilding pays for its employees to participate in the program, describing it as a “learn while you earn” opportunity. He said the company makes the program available to any employee interested.

“These are highly transportable skills, but we can’t be afraid of training our workforce,” he said. “We hope that they’ll stay with Bay Shipbuilding for a career. But if not, that’s OK. We’ll have to train another one, but we know we have a process that turns out great welders.”

In the next year, NWTC expects to see upwards of 160 participants from Fincantieri Bay Shipbuilding.

“We’re strengthening and solidifying this program now to meet their immediate needs, knowing that it’s going to continue to grow into the future,” Draeger said.

Dent said 160 participants is a baseline and the company anticipates that number will grow with the amount of work coming into the shipbuilder.

“It is one of the largest commercial shipbuilders on the Great Lakes,” he said of Bay Shipbuilding. “It’s also one of two shipyards that can do emergency repairs on 1,000-foot Lakers, and it also supports the military construction, the government construction that takes place across the bay at Marinette.”

Draeger and Dent said the two organizations are in the early stages of planning for additional training programs to provide training in electrical work and CNC machining.

Draeger also said the existing partnership supports economic development by helping to upskill the local workforce, giving employees the skills to obtain higher wages and better positions.

“The maritime industry in Wisconsin is a $2.2 billion industry, and employs thousands of workers in northeastern Wisconsin,” Draeger said. “For this partnership with Bay Shipbuilding and NWTC to help sustain that industry for generations to come is so important.”

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