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Higher education leaders form alliance to meet workforce needs

As soon as Foxconn Technology Group announced its plans to build a factory in southeastern Wisconsin, the region’s colleges were quick to pledge their willingness to add curricula, build new programs and customize training to meet the Taiwanese technology manufacturer’s needs.

But the sheer size of the company’s planned operations in Mount Pleasant, including plans to eventually hire as many as 13,000 workers, has raised many questions about whether those individual colleges’ efforts will be sufficient to confront talent shortages.

As the region prepares for Foxconn and braces itself for workforce shortages in many industries, it has prompted a new sense of urgency among southeastern Wisconsin’s higher education leaders to work in concert with one another.

A steering committee of leaders from several higher education institutions has been quietly working toward that end in recent months. Called Higher Education Regional Alliance, and known as HERA, the committee comprises leaders from the region’s three technical colleges, the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, UW-Parkside, Marquette University and Carthage College. It also includes Julia Taylor, president of the Greater Milwaukee Committee, Eve Hall, president of the Milwaukee Urban League, and leaders of education-related nonprofits Milwaukee Succeeds and Higher Expectations for Racine County.

Committee members came together after realizing that the many separate conversations they were having related to workforce development could be more effective if all the region’s key players were at the table together.

“We were having these discussions,” said Mark Mone, chancellor of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, of the region’s higher education leaders. “We were overlapping and running into each other and asking, ‘Who’s doing what?’ We thought there had to be a more efficient and effective way for us to have these discussions.”

Not only that, Mone said, but there had to be a better way for employers to get connected to the pipeline of talent coming from the region’s schools.

“From an employer’s perspective, it’s not very realistic for an employer to have more than four or five significant relationships with talent pipeline (institutions),” Mone said. “Let alone if there are 23 institutions of higher ed in southeast Wisconsin, they’re stretched. How about if we can band together and provide greater access to higher ed institutions from an employment portal, and vice-versa? What if we could have a better understanding of what the employer demands are and lining up our curriculum accordingly?”

A dozen committee members gathered on a recent morning at Milwaukee Area Technical College’s Oak Creek campus to define and solidify HERA’s goals. Convening all of the leaders at that table – the steering committee’s fourth meeting in roughly the past three months – is the beginning point for greater collaboration, members say, as the group plans to invite representatives from all 23 colleges in the region to be part of the effort moving forward.

The steering committee has distilled its conversations into three areas that HERA will tackle: raising the region’s college completion rate; increasing program innovation, growth and alignment; and better connecting employers with the talent coming out of the colleges.

“Foxconn was a galvanizing force that really showed us what we’re not doing,” Mone said. “But while Foxconn will benefit, all regional employers should benefit considerably from this type of collaboration among higher ed.”

The committee’s first goal – to increase college completion – is aimed at an issue particularly prevalent in Milwaukee, where only about 37 percent of residents have completed a post-secondary degree.

“That’s a problem when you look at the state, which is at 48 percent,” said Vicki Martin, president of MATC. “Canada is at 59 percent. And South Korea is at 69 percent. To compete with the world, we really have to increase the (college) completion rate.”

HERA’s work will also involve reimagining existing programs and pathways to accelerate the process of preparing students for the workforce. That could look like an expansion of dual enrollment programs, or pairing students with internships early on in their high school careers, or forging new articulation agreements among the region’s colleges.

Julia Taylor said part of the solution could also be found in programs like The Commons, a Milwaukee student entrepreneurship program that gives students exposure to entrepreneurial activities, as well as local corporations and mentors. Those kinds of programs promote the retention of homegrown talent.

“A lot of students think of Kohl’s as a department store that their mom has shopped at or they think of Briggs & Stratton as a type of lawnmower, but don’t understand the types of innovations and technologies that are happening within these corporations,” Taylor said.

The committee will rely on data that’s currently being collected from area employers about their current and future workforce needs. That survey – commissioned by the Milwaukee 7 economic development partnership and Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce – is currently underway.

“It’s a data-driven process that will allow us to work ahead as to where the needs are,” Taylor said. “What do we need to develop in order to close those gaps for students and employers?”

HERA will also focus on improving employers’ access to talent and providing more streamlined communication. This will benefit not only employers, but colleges, committee members said. Having better lines of communication will allow higher education to be more responsive to industry needs.

Debbie Ford, chancellor of the University of Wisconsin-Parkside, said the university has already started making adjustments in preparation for Foxconn, which will be located five miles away from the campus. It’s propelled the university’s curriculum to be more future-oriented, she said.

“(Foxconn’s) focus is beyond just being a business,” Ford said. “They are focused on building out a science and technology park and really advancing technology and thinking more futuristically. One of the opportunities is to have us think more into the future – how do we make sure our curriculum is not just preparing students for today’s opportunities, but continues to prepare them for what’s on the horizon?”

Still in its infancy stages, HERA has already proven to quell competition and increase collaboration among higher education institutions, Martin said.

“We all get funded by the number of students we have,” Martin said. “So in the past it would be more like, ‘I need more students in my institution. It’s important that I get the lion’s share of folks out there.’ But now it’s more about making sure it’s a good student fit, that they’re at the right institution, that they complete, that they continue their education, that they get a family-sustaining wage. We’ve come together in ways we’ve never come together in the past.”

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