Making another run at solving the skills gap
Biz Alliance announces Waukesha MADE committee

By Arthur Thomas - Freeman Staff

July 18, 2014

WAUKESHA - Anyone who has paid attention to education and manufacturing over the last several years has likely heard the term “skills gap” repeatedly. The phenomenon of employers having jobs to fill but not being able to find potential employees with the right skill-set has proved stubbornly difficult to solve.

The Waukesha County Business Alliance has launched several programs to help address it and recently announced its Waukesha MADE Action Committee as another potential solution.

The collaboration with the Waukesha School District, which has a Waukesha Manufacturing, Automotive, Design and Engineering program, is intended to increase involvement and communication between the manufacturing community and the district.

The committee’s activities will include exposing parents and students to manufacturing careers through tours and job fairs, bringing real-world into the classroom, encouraging students to share their experiences and offering mentoring connections.

Waukesha Superintendent Todd Gray said the district’s goal is to have students college and career ready.

“If you’re not going to college, we think being career ready is a good option as well,” he said.

Nick Kroll, president and CEO of Aries Industries, said the committee is focused on trying to integrate Waukesha’s manufacturing businesses into the school system.

Kroll, the committee’s chair, added the focus is on high school students, but there is a desire to also reach middle school students.

Gray said the collaboration will help address some of the skills gap issues.

“They certainly aren’t directing the education,” he said, before adding the companies can tell the district what hard and soft skills potential employees are missing.

Kroll said that while each company will often have its own specific skill needs, one hard skill need that is almost universal is a strong foundation in math.

Among the soft skill issues Kroll highlighted were issues with attendance and communication. He said it may seem basic, but many young employees struggle to show up on time on a consistent basis. He added the increase in technology in daily life has meant young employees often struggle to look someone in the eye, listen to what they are being told or articulate their thoughts clearly.

He acknowledged these were generalizations, but said they do present problems for employers.

The main goal of the Business Alliance committee is to promote manufacturing careers as an option for students. Kroll said the committee’s success will be measured by how many students choose to take full-time jobs with manufacturers right after graduating high school.

He said he wasn’t trying to imply a college education was a bad thing, but said it isn’t the right path for everyone.

Kroll said there are a couple of roadblocks preventing more people from going into manufacturing careers.

“One of the biggest things we’re fighting, frankly speaking, is parents,” he said, noting that many have had bad experiences themselves with manufacturing or think the industry is dangerous, dirty and lacks good jobs.

He also said that while many people associate manufacturing jobs lost through downsizing or outsourcing, similar things have happened in other industries like finance or software.

Those looking to draw students to manufacturing are also fighting the tradition of going away to school.

“It’s almost looked at like it’s a right of passage to have that college experience,” Kroll said.

He noted many employers are willing to help their employees with tuition and other education related expenses.

As for the possibility of jobs disappearing, Kroll said there are number of companies with strong ties to Waukesha.

“I don’t see them going anywhere anytime soon,” he said.