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Buckley Brinkman column: Diversity brings terrific opportunities for Wisconsin

4:19 PM, Nov. 30, 2012  |  Comments
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Whew! Am I glad the elections are over."

If you're like me, you've heard this numerous times in the past couple of weeks. Maybe you've even said it a few times. One of my friends went so far to say that she was happy to see normal TV ads making their comeback.

It was an interesting result for Wisconsin. The State House swung strongly Republican, while our two national elections went Democratic. Tammy Baldwin's election to the Senate leaves us with the most conservative and most liberal Senators in the country. All in all we have diverse opinions and perspectives on what is best for our state and our country.

That diversity brings tremendous opportunities for Wisconsin. The national spotlight remains on our political activities and many of our issues mirror those of other states. We have the opportunity to address these issues constructively and effectively. Wisconsin is the best state in the country to make these advances, because most of us prefer effective, practical leadership over partisanship and ideological battles. We believe anything is possible and expect our leaders to get to work on our critical issues.

One of the most serious issues facing us is the Workforce Paradox - the fact that we have thousands of open jobs in the state and a lack of skilled workers to fill those jobs. A recent Manpower study states that we will need 800,000 more trained workers before 2020.

That's a significant challenge for a state with a population of 5.7 million. It's complex and will require effective, coordinated action. There are no simple, one-sentence solutions to an issue that hits at the heart of our economy.

The future looks much different than we expected 30 years ago. Back then, we were transitioning to a knowledge, service, and technology-based economy. A four-year college degree was seen as a requirement for success in that world, and we pointed our entire education and economic system in that direction.

Now we are beginning to realize that this may not be the only pathway to prosperity. The numbers show that 70 percent of Wisconsin's jobs require a two-year degree ... or less. Four-year degrees also do not guarantee economic success as 25 percent of the state's four-year degree holders fail to make $29,000 per year. A high-school graduate with the appropriate one-year certificate from one of our technical colleges can enter the workforce making more than that.

The future is different, but we have a strong base to build upon. We have a strong manufacturing base creating value for the state; our education system is a point of justified pride; and we have a strong willingness to adapt and change for the good of all. These factors put us in prime position to create frameworks and templates that can be used across the country.

I believe that manufacturing can be a catalyst for much of that change. We are the No. 1 manufacturing state in the country. More than 19 percent of our public, non-farm workforce calls manufacturing home and manufacturing drives almost half of Wisconsin's economy.

The Workforce Paradox hits our segment of the economy disproportionately hard, so more and more manufacturing leaders are engaging in the process of realigning the infrastructure necessary to close the skills gap. Grassroots initiatives are taking hold in many different parts of the state and manufacturers can be found in the midst of most of them. Those initiatives are transforming the way we approach developing our present and future workers.

Wisconsin's educational network is a great asset in these transformations. Our university and technical college systems provide tremendous resources and represent a major opportunity for all of us. Right now, we as citizens invest more than $70,000 for every four-year degree conferred in the state. This is the highest outlay in the nation and we need to receive full value for our investment. This means making sure we are clear about our desired results and how our investments create those results.

The discussion about our expected results is the second most difficult discussion we must have as a society (right behind healthcare). What do we expect from our college graduates and what are we willing to invest? Is higher education a right or a privilege? What economic value do we expect? How do we measure the intrinsic value of a higher education? All of these are questions that will be answered as we move forward.

I believe our institutions of higher education must clearly address two issues: Preparing matriculating students for success in a career; and eliminating duplicative and inefficient efforts between institutions. Career preparation is a much more difficult issue than when I earned my UW degree in 1982.

Back then it was a simple matter of graduating and moving onto a career path. Today, the proliferation of degrees and the lack of long-term career paths make it more important for degree programs to efficiently develop clearly marketable skills and the means to routinely update and upgrade those skills. That alone is a significant challenge, but even more is necessary.

If our educational system is going to deal with these critical challenges efficiently and effectively, the system must move from a competitive to a coopetitive model. Right now, each of the institutions within the system operates relatively independently. We are a very provincial state and nowhere is that more apparent than in how we approach education throughout the state.

Instead of finding ways to amplify great efforts and building upon those successes, we tend to develop competing, conflicting, and duplicative programs. This approach results in more expensive and less effective approaches to the real-life problems we face. Instead, we need to rethink, redeploy and reallocate our educational resources to be able to cooperate and compete in ways that make sense for the entire state.

We face significant challenges and opportunities in Wisconsin. Our strengths are numerous and our will to find sensible solutions is extremely strong. Our leaders have the opportunity to build on these strengths in a practical, bipartisan fashion. I'm optimistic about our ability to set a tone and framework that considers our issues and establishes an example for the rest of a divided country. It's up to all of us as responsible citizens to get involved and help our leaders make this possibility a reality.

- Buckley Brinkman is executive director/CEO of the Wisconsin Manufacturing Extension Partnership. He can be reached at 608-240-1740 or via email at brinkman@wmep.org.

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