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New skills open up manufacturing opportunities

February 7, 2022
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Wisconsin’s Workforce Innovation Grant project aims to help workers get the skills needed to thrive in advanced manufacturing

STEVENS POINT, WI. FEB. 7, 2022 – The robots have already invaded Central Wisconsin’s factories.

But don’t worry. A project at Mid-State Technical College is going to help more humans learn how to oversee those robots and whatever other tech comes to advanced manufacturing.

“We have to learn how to work differently using automation, integration and utilizing the internet of things,” said Bobbi Damrow, vice president of workforce development and community relations for Mid-State. With more than 2,300 manufacturing workers expected to retire in the next eight years and declining population, building a highly skilled is key.

“The talent we have, we have to invest in, through training into higher level human positions,” Damrow said.

The state of Wisconsin is helping Mid-State Technical College and its partners make that investment with a Workforce Innovation Grant worth up to $9 million. The grant will help the college and partners build the Advanced Manufacturing, Engineering Technology and Apprenticeship Center in Stevens Point and help youth and unemployed or underemployed people of all ages overcome the barriers preventing them from thriving in the workforce.

“For a training program to be successful, providers must think about more than the quality of education,” said Missy Hughes, secretary and CEO of the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation (WEDC). “The program must address things like transportation, child care and other support that can help these workers be successful. Mid-State Technical College and partners have been very thoughtful in designing a program that will be truly accessible.”

Hughes and Danielle Williams, assistant deputy secretary of the Department of Workforce Development (DWD) traveled to Stevens Point for a roundtable discussion Monday with college and business leaders, nonprofits and students to talk about how the Workforce Innovation Grant will make a difference in Central Wisconsin.

“Wisconsin’s record-low unemployment and strong labor force participation rate are reasons to celebrate; yet the strong economic rebound means more must be done to connect employers with underutilized talent,” Williams said. “The Mid-State Technical College effort will pay dividends for years to come, thanks to construction of an advanced manufacturing and apprenticeship center in the region as well as efforts to target unemployed, underemployed, and underserved communities and youth with job training and support services.”

One of the biggest challenges that Mid-State Technical College officials needed to solve to make this program work is transportation. Many of the communities in the college’s eight county service area are rural and do not have public transportation options.

“If you don’t have a working vehicle and you live outside Stevens Point or Wausau you’re left with expensive options like Uber or hoping you have someone in your life who can drive you around,” said Sara Guild, executive director of the Wisconsin Automotive and Truck Education Association (WATEA). “It could really be a game changer in enabling the individuals in those areas to get to the cities where there is workforce training,”

Mid-State Technical College is working with WATEA to develop a 160-mile loop route of commuter vans that would transport students from their homes in the region to the college’s campuses in Adams, Marshfield, Stevens Point and Wisconsin Rapids. The route will also eventually serve the Advanced Manufacturing, Engineering Technology and Apprenticeship Center as well.

The center will be built next to Stevens Point’s Gamber Johnson, a leading provider of mounting systems that secure computers and communications equipment in all sorts of vehicles. The company was the first to contribute money toward the $11 million center.

“We were looking outside our community schools for the talents and skills we needed in open positions,” said Gautam Malik, president and COO of Gamber-Johnson. So Malik and the company decided to take an active role in helping to develop the center to cultivate these skills locally. “The good thing about this program is we’ll be on the cutting edge of technology. We will be able to inform the needs and skill sets required and help the school get to that.”

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, with a second round of grants expected to be announced later this year.

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