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New skills open up manufacturing opportunities

February 2, 2022
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Wisconsin’s Workforce Innovation Grant project aims to help workers get the skills needed to thrive in advanced manufacturing

EAU CLAIRE, WI. FEB. 2, 2022 – This spring, Austin Bowe is on track to graduate from Chippewa Valley Technical College’s machine tool program with an associate degree.

The 18-year-old already has a job at a tool company in Chippewa Falls paying $24 an hour – though raises are promised after graduation as he takes on more responsibility.

And because he spent his senior year of high school dual enrolled in the program and his high school curriculum – meaning his high school was paying for the college credits he was earning – he’ll graduate with no student debt.

“Right now I’m just kind of running other people’s programs but pretty soon as they get custom orders I’ll get to program and design parts,” Bowe said.

A new Chippewa Valley Technical College (CVTC) project that works with area school districts, businesses and nonprofits hopes to increase the number of Wisconsin workers with stories like Bowe’s.

With up to $10 million in funding through the state’s Workforce Innovation Grant, efforts are already underway to help more young people and underemployed workers get the training they need to fill the many open manufacturing positions – particularly in metal fabrication – throughout the region.

“What’s very exciting about this initiative is that Chippewa Valley Technical College and their partners are bringing training right to where students need it,” said Missy Hughes, secretary and CEO of the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation (WEDC). “By sending instructors and a mobile lab out to area schools – often in rural areas – you’re drawing in new students and helping people discover a new and fulfilling career path.”

A native of Cornell, about 40 miles northeast of Eau Claire, Bowe said he took a wide variety of shop classes in high school. But then the school offered a “machining academy” through CVTC. And he was hooked.

“There’s so many jobs,” he said. “Even if I got bored, I could go somewhere else and do something completely different.”

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 CVTC working to solve Wisconsin’s workforce challenges.

“Wisconsin’s record-low unemployment and strong labor force participation rate are reasons to celebrate; yet the strong rebound in manufacturing means employers are finding it difficult to fill jobs,” Pechacek said. “The CVTC effort aims to help rural students expand their career horizons through new tools and training opportunities while connecting employers with new talent.”

At CVTC the grant funding will be used for Restoring Employment through Support, Training, Outreach, Recruitment, and Education (RESTORE) project. To address a shortage of advanced manufacturing workers – especially those in metal fabrication – the initiative will develop short-term training options and multipurpose training hubs and mobile labs to reach rural areas.

“This project is all about removing barriers for students and employers,” said Shana Schmidt, CVTC’s director of college effectiveness.

One of those hubs will be in Bloomer at Processed Metals Innovators (PMI), which works with a variety of industries in steel processing and fabrication.

“The number of jobs that are available far outnumber the number of people to hire – especially when it comes to skilled workers,” said Shirley Gutsch, PMI’s human resources manager and a Chippewa County Economic Development Corporation board member.

“We want to grow,” Gutsch said. “We’re going to grow. We have a five-year plan, a 10-year plan. That means you have to have the employees.”

The company already has a strong relationship with the Bloomer School District and PMI has about a dozen high school youth apprentices working there. During their time at PMI, apprentices are able to see many different aspects of manufacturing and if they discover an area they want to learn more about the students can work with the company and CVTC to gain new skills.

It’s not necessary for young people to leave the region or state to find meaningful, family-supporting jobs, she said.

“It’s not just a job but a career,” Gutsch said. “They can have a career here – a career that will provide for them and a family.”

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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