Waukesha County manufacturing leaders seek teachers’ help in addressing skills gap

By Lauren Anderson - Freeman Staff

April 3, 2015

Kettle Moraine High School teachers listen during a tour of GE Healthcare’s Waukesha manufacturing facility as part of the Waukesha County Business Alliance’s School2Skills initiative.
Charles Auer/Freeman Staff   

WAUKESHA - The No. 1 economic development concern in the county isn’t just an issue for businesses to solve. They need the help of teachers, too.

That was the plea two industry representatives made to a room full of Kettle Moraine School District staff members Thursday afternoon, as they stressed the role of K-12 education in addressing Wisconsin’s critical shortage of skilled manufacturing workers.

Representing the Waukesha County Business Alliance, Acieta LLC CEO Kent Lorenz and Rick Kalscheuer of R&R Insurance Services shared data regarding the widening chasm between available jobs and skilled workers - a skills gap that is expected to continue growing as baby boomers retire.  

The statistics are concerning, they said, and it’s going to take more than businesses’ recruitment efforts to sell manufacturing careers to students. Lorenz said teachers need to lead the way in debunking common misperceptions about the industry.

“As a culture and as a society, we’ve spent the past two decades telling kids this: manufacturing is a dead-end career, everything is going to China, it’s dirty, it’s unsafe, it’s low-tech,” Lorenz said. “None of that is true in manufacturing today.”

As WCBA Vice President of Community Engagement Mary Baer said, the days of “dangerous, dark and dirty are over.”

Michael Mills talks about a CT/PET scanner made in GE Healthcare’s Waukesha manufacturing facility during a tour for Kettle Moraine High School teachers as part of the Waukesha County Business Alliance’s School2Skills initiative on Thursday.
Charles Auer/Freeman Staff   

Kettle Moraine teachers toured three area businesses - TLX Technologies, Generac Power Systems and GE Healthcare - Thursday to get a firsthand look at modern manufacturing. For about half of the teachers, Baer said, it was their first time in a manufacturing facility.

While the industry is in need of rebranding, Kalscheuer said schools also reexamine their definition of what makes a successful student. K-12 schools traditionally have emphasized four-year college preparation in defining success, including participation and performance in ACT and AP exams, he said.

But those values aren’t necessarily shared by employers, Lorenz said.

“I don’t need everyone to have a college degree,” he said.

Lorenz said he would rather workers have employability skills like collaboration, teamwork, showing up on time, communication and a willingness to continue learning. Those things, he said, are likely better indicators of a successful employee than ACT scores.

Lorenz implored teachers to be on the lookout for students who show an interest in hands-on work and creating things. Those are ideal candidates for manufacturing, he said.

Kent Lorenz of Acieta, a City of Pewaukee robotics company, talks about opportunities in his field for students with technical degrees at Kettle Moraine High School as part of the Waukesha County Business Alliance’s Schools2Skills program.
Charles Auer/Freeman Staff   

Some of the top technical skills employers are looking for in an employee include computer literacy, application of math, creativity, safety, understanding mechanics and blueprint and schematic reading, Lorenz said.

Baer praised efforts like Kettle Moraine High School’s advanced manufacturing certificate program, which allows students to work with mentors at GE and Generac and earn college credit with Waukesha County Technical College. Opportunities like those, she said, give students both employability skills and relevant experience.

WCBA representatives stressed that students will likely find good wages in the manufacturing industry, with the average Wisconsin manufacturing worker earning more than $52,000 annually, according to the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development. That’s compared to an average of about $41,000 for workers in all industries.


Email: landerson@conleynet.com