Newsmakers, July 13, 2017

Air Date:
Heard On Newsmakers
Roger Stanford, Kathleen Olson and Vicki Markussen
Roger Stanford, Kathleen Olson and Vicki Markussen Hope Kirwan/WPR

Business, education and government are working hard to address a skilled labor shortage that one business executive estimates could involve more than 90 percent of businesses in the La Crosse area.

That’s a much higher rate than the entire state. A recent survey by Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce suggests 77 percent of the state’s employers are having trouble finding skilled workers.

From raising wages to improving youth apprenticeship programs and convincing young people careers in a trade are worthwhile, a multifaceted approach is being taken, but increasing the skilled workforce is also a daunting challenge.

Western Technical College has been able to end a workers’ shortage in welding in southwestern Wisconsin, producing 200 welders in the past four years.

But consider what it took to get there. Expanding the training facility for the welding program was part of an $80-million campus improvement referendum. The school also had to secure special grants from the state of Wisconsin to buy special training equipment and hire more instructors.

Western Technical College President Roger Stanford said you can’t create a cookie-cutter model based on the success of ending the welder shortage and apply it to other industries.

“All (participating businesses) of the programs that we have want more right now. And it’s a flat budget time,” Stafford said. “So for me to raise welding, I reduce what? What area? Do I go to the building systems and building science when construction is just booming or do I go to health care? So that’s where our struggle is.”

Stafford said Western is also working to convince students their lives will be better off if they stick with a program rather than dropping out to work part-time. He said Western’s HVAC program, another area of skilled worker need, is only half-full because students don’t stick with it.

A growing number of La Crosse companies are recruiting skilled workers from other parts of the country, according to La Crosse Area Chamber of Commerce executive director Vicki Markussen. She said the talent recruiting involves careers in architecture, engineering and information technology.

“The strategies that I hear from those businesses are, ‘We need to find those people that grew up here, that went away to college, because in a lot of those cases, we don’t have those programs locally and we need to recruit them back,” she said.

Western Technical College and Viterbo University are exploring the possibility of creating a joint engineering program in La Crosse.

Markussen said the state and Coulee Region will continue to see stifled economic growth if the strategies to close the skilled worker gap fail.

– John Davis

Episode Credits

  • Hope Kirwan Host
  • John Davis Producer
  • Vicki Markussen Guest
  • Kathleen Olson Guest
  • Roger Stanford Guest