Wisconsin firms heeding national call to address skills gap

May 21, 2014

President Obama just launched a multimillion-dollar effort to expand apprenticeships and job-training initiatives in order to shrink the skills gap plaguing the U.S. workforce and economy. Similar efforts are thriving in Wisconsin, thanks to the Northeastern Wisconsin (NEW) Manufacturing Alliance, which promotes manufacturing in the Badger State. With outreach programs in primary and secondary schools, the alliance is recruiting the next generation of workers early.

"There's more to manufacturing than pulling levers — there's opportunity for real money and advancement," said Andy Bushmaker, senior human resources manager at Green Bay-based KI Furniture, a member of the alliance. "The baby boomers are on the cusp of retirement. Manufacturers will soon need to replace these skilled workers — and their decades of experience.

"Young people won't be able to capitalize on these opportunities if they don't have the math and technical knowledge these jobs require. We're helping them acquire those skills," Bushmaker said.

To change the sentiment that manufacturing is dingy, dumbed-down, and dead-end, KI Furniture, cheese maker Sargento, and snow blower manufacturer Ariens — three members of the alliance — have produced videos that local teachers are using to teach practical applications for math on the production line, from trigonometry to software optimization to robotics. The alliance is also touting manufacturing's earnings potential.

More than 1,000 students have visited KI's plant in the last year for tours and internships.

"Students and teachers are displaying renewed interest in manufacturing," Bushmaker said. "Initiatives like those advanced by the NEW Manufacturing Alliance could help close the skills gap that's holding back American manufacturing — and relieve our nation's youth unemployment crisis."