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High school diploma opens opportunities

February 11, 2022
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Wisconsin’s Workforce Innovation Grant project aims to help residents earn a high school degree

RACINE, WI. FEB. 10, 2022 – For new graduate Scott Fricke, a high school diploma means a chance at a new life.

The 56-year-old Burlington resident left high school after his junior year and embarked on a successful career as a contractor. But in 2019, a back condition left Fricke partially paralyzed and he now uses a wheelchair.

“I don’t just want to sit around the rest of my life,” Fricke said. “I want to do something, be something. I knew I wanted to go back to school but I knew I couldn’t do that without a high school diploma.”

In December, Fricke earned his high school equivalency degree (HSED) through a program run by Gateway Technical College and the YWCA of Southeast Wisconsin.

A state Workforce Innovation Grant worth up to $5.6 million will allow the college, YWCA and other partners to guide more students through the process of earning a high school diploma and entering the workforce or seeking additional training.

“Wisconsin can’t afford to leave members of its workforce on the sidelines,” said Missy Hughes, secretary and CEO of the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation (WEDC). “Education is key to building a skilled workforce but traditional high school programs don’t work for everyone. For those without a diploma, this program offers the support needed to earn that high school degree and open up so many opportunities.”

Hughes and Amy Pechacek, Department of Workforce Development (DWD) secretary-designee traveled to Racine Thursday for a roundtable discussion with college and business leaders, nonprofits and students to talk about how the Workforce Innovation Grant will make a difference in southeastern Wisconsin.

“Wisconsin’s record-low unemployment rate and strong recovery there are excellent opportunities available for those who want to return to work, gain new skills or make a career transition,” Pechacek said. “Thanks to Gateway Technical College and its partners, unemployed, underemployed, and justice-involved individuals will be able to earn high school degrees and acquire in-demand skills that will open up meaningful job opportunities.”

Gateway Technical College and its partners including the YWCA of Southeast Wisconsin, Southeast Wisconsin Workforce Development Board and Racine County Higher Expectations will use the grant funding for Southeast Wisconsin’s Talent Optimization Project (SWTOP).

Targeting unemployed and underemployed individuals and incarcerated individuals nearing release, SWTOP aims to help more residents in Racine, Kenosha and Walworth counties earn high school degrees. To do this, the program will offer a 4 week course to prepare for the larger 16-week long Work Ready HSED course. Classes will be offered both virtually and in-person, in English and Spanish and at different times of day. If needed, free child care and transportation will be offered.

“Many of our students are already in the workforce but because they don’t have that high school credential they can’t advance,” said Cyndean Jennings, dean of the School of Pre-College and Momentum Programs for Gateway Technical College. “We kind of close some of those gaps that happen.”

Employers are being asked to participate in SWTOP as well by offering career exploration in high demand areas including manufacturing, health care, child care, transportation and hospitality.
Precision Plus, based in Elkhorn, manufactures precision machined components for a wide variety of industries. Over the years, the company has seen a decreasing pool of qualified machinists to hire, said President Mike J. Reader.

“We still need to change the narrative and public perception of what manufacturing careers look like,” Reader said. “They’re exciting careers; rewarding not only on the psychological side going home every day knowing they made something that makes a difference, but also financially rewarding.”

The company does not require a high school degree for entry-level positions, Reader said, instead placing a focus on the candidate’s aptitude and attitude. Seeing a need for more training in the workplace, in 2014 Reader took the unusual step of hiring a high school educator to develop and run the employee training program at Precision Plus.

The director of education position still exists today, and their internal training program is thriving, Reader said. But Reader said he doesn’t hesitate to refer employees without an HSED to Gateway.

“It’s going to give them a stronger foundation,” he said.

In December, Gov. Tony Evers announced the first round of Workforce Innovation Grants awarding up to $59.5 million to 12 collaborative programs, including the one at Mid-State Technical College, working to solve Wisconsin’s workforce challenges.

The Workforce Innovation Grants are paid for by $100 million in federal American Rescue Plan Act funds. Applications for a second round of funding open Feb. 22. More information on the program can be found here:

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