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  • Writer's pictureOlivia Liu

Interview : Workforce Development From the Perspective of a Workforce Training Institute

Updated: Dec 8, 2023

An Interview with Dr. Bryan Albrecht, President and CEO of Gateway Technical College in Wisconsin

August 3rd, 2022

Discussion Summary:

Gateway collects data about workforce needs to ensure that its students are prepared for open job opportunities. Through Gateway’s “customized training approach,” manufacturing employers can modify Gateway’s curriculums to fit their skill requisites.

The presence of manufacturing in any community is often hidden because people only see an end product, not the process by which it is made. To get more people interested in manufacturing as a career path, the sector’s relevance to the daily lives of Americans must be emphasized.

Americans should start learning about manufacturing from high school age or younger, so that youth who aspire to start manufacturing careers can embark on the appropriate educational pathway early through dual enrollment and transferrable college courses and then go on to receive post-secondary two-year or four-year degrees.

Could you provide some context into the counties that GTC serves?

First of all, I’m honored to be a part of your research study. You’ve picked an important topic as we continue to use education as a pathway to opportunity and prosperity for communities we serve. Gateway Technical College was founded in 1911, so we’ve been at this for quite a long time. It continues to be something that is so critical to the ongoing economic growth of the region for the employers but also the citizens of southeast Wisconsin.

We’re located in the furthest southeastern corner of the state, bordering the Illinois border and the largest city of Milwaukee in Wisconsin. Kenosha, the county bordering Illinois and Racine, bordering Milwaukee county. The county to the west is Walworth county. Each county has a unique demographic and population base in history as it relates to advanced manufacturing. Of course, Racine and Kenosha are more urban experiences, major corporations in those regions would include S.E. Johnson corporation, Snap-on Tools, Modine Corporation, Insinkerator, Jockey International, so we have great legacy companies. We kind of grew up together. In the last ten years or so, we have the advancement of new companies such as Haribo gummy bears (North American headquarters), Amazon (North American headquarters), so we’re seeing some really strong growth in the last decade of more automated manufacturing systems, while the legacy companies continue to evolve and bring automation into their portfolio. In our Walworth county community, it’s more rural, so a lot of farming communities and very specialized industries. Not just broad-based, but swift screw and micro-machining, so industries more in the niche market.

As far as the schools go, we serve a variety of K-12 schools and have over 8,000 students in dual enrollment. We try to reach as far as possible into our schools and provide technical support programs there. We also have liberal arts transfer degree programs with our partnering universities. We’ve covered the entire spectrum of education from early learning all the way through graduate level courses. But our primary focus is the two-year associate degree and pathway technical programs and the one-year diploma programs. While that has been our foundation for all these hundred-plus years, most recently the growth and development has been in our short-term certificate programs. Those programs that directly align with industry, that offer a credential. Maybe it’s a six-week credential, or a one-year credential, in some industry-certified area. And that’s been kind of the transformation of the college—younger demographics, shorter-term certification program, but all of it aligning with the curriculum opportunities that are available for our region. I should also add that Gateway is one of 16 technical colleges in Wisconsin, all 16 fall under the governance model of a state board, appointed by the governor, then each of the 16 have their own local board, appointed by the county chairs. For Gateway, we have three counties, three trustees from each county (nine-member board), and one at-large student representative appointed by our board of trustees. We have a ten-person board and provide an overall governance structure for our technical college. In our region, we’re a part of the higher education regional lines. There are 18 two-and-four-year institutions in the seven counties surrounding Milwaukee and Gateway. There’s a lot of higher education in our region, but very that specifically focus on the technical workforce side.

Do you think that it’s more sustainable for companies to make technology that accommodates a lower worker skill, or should workers be trying to advance their credentials to accommodate more complex technologies?

That is a great question.

Coming from education, my goal would always be to advance the skills of the human side of it. That automatically increases the value of your performance. It makes it more prosperous for you, the economics behind it just make more sense. It also speeds up the production and efficiency levels of the employers. That would be where we lean toward as a college, that upgrading your skills is going to give you greater advantage in the market place. I can see the other side of the coin, in which if there is another task that can be done through automation—it reduces turnover, reduces employee boredom, frustration, and that can be a challenge from an HR perspective.

You want to alleviate that front-end, what happens though is you create a gap. You have a group of individuals that were well-suited for those entry-level jobs, but they had not gained those higher level skills, so they’re not ready for the higher-level skill job, and if you displace entry-level jobs with automation, then it takes a longer time period and a little more motivation to get people to say “I’ve got to educate to a higher level.” There are some dynamics in play by human nature.

For Gateway Technical College, how does the curriculum evolve to meet advancing technology trends?

That’s a great question, too. We have several approaches.

One of our approaches is: every one of our programs has an industry advisory committee. We hear feedback from our employers on what the skill level needs are, and whether or not we are able to meet those skill levels. We tie that into an annual survey as well, so we know the perspectives of graduates going out–if they get the job they trained for, what the financial situation looks like, so that’s a key piece that’s data-driven with our employer involvement.

We also provide externship experiences for our faculty. When they’re not teaching, they can continue to work an industry, and we provide the funding for that. We want to keep them current and motivated. That’s a big driver for us.

The third aspect of it is: we have a research team that works to look for new opportunities to invest through grant programs or through partnerships with our local employers, and those investments help to drive innovation and change within our programs. But it’s all based on the regional economy that we serve. So, if we’re seeing an increase, which we are currently, in healthcare, we will invest more in healthcare. We moved from a traditional nursing program to a human patient simulation training center (we have three of them now). And that changes the dynamics of how we prepare nurses.

Same in manufacturing. Five years ago, we expanded our advanced manufacturing from what would have been a traditional CNC program to include all the industry 4.0 advancements so we’re on the cutting edge of automation-sensing technology, sort of lights out manufacturing skill sets. While some of our students aren’t there yet, nor are all the employers, we can see the future of advanced manufacturing and begin to build that skill set. It takes a long time for student to get to us (18 years), and when they do get to us, it will take a few years to get them up-skilled.

What does the communication between employers and education look like?

A few examples. One is our customized training approach. Employers will come to Gateway and we will modify our program to meet their specific needs. It might be a certain design of robots that they have, it might be a certain skill set because they’re trying to build a team of skills, or they’re going into a cellular manufacturing model. We can customize it and deliver it just in time at their place of employment. Our faculty will go to their shopfloor and actually deliver that content. That keeps us engaged very closely.

Another way is, we are very actively involved in our local economic development corporations, and our workforce boards. I serve on all of those in each of the three counties, which means we have insight to what companies are considering moving here. What kind of workforce challenges do they have, how do we begin to put programs in place to support those networks. That infrastructure of networking specifically is critical for us.

Another good example would be: when we establish a new program, we do it based on data that shows there’s going to be outcomes available to graduates, but we also do it in partnership with local companies that will be hiring those grads. All of our programs are in some ways sponsored by a local employer so that we have direct involvement in making sure that all aspects—the faculty, development, and curriculum, even the lab experience, reflects what our students will see going out into the workforce.

We have a multiple-pronged approach to staying connected with our local employers. Formal surveys, informal service on boards and committees, direct curriculum engagement, so I think it’s going to take a lot of those levels to keep all lines of communications open with our employers.

How are company-specific curriculums designed so that if a graduate decides they want to leave a company in the future, how are their skills still applicable to general industries?

That is a great question. A few ways we accommodate that: one is, customized training programs can be offered through credit or non-credit. If it’s credit-based, the employee would receive an actual transcript from gateway, probably not aligned to a program, but if they wanted to align it to a program they could add it to their program. If it’s non-credit, we track all of that as well. We have a program for prior learning, and whether they’re in a Gateway program or another type of program (might be employer-driven, from another college, from a workforce board), they can bring those skill sets and have a test-out process. If it’s from Gateway, they just show the certificate that they’ve completed it, if it’s from somewhere else they take a test out and get credit for prior learning.

We are a firm believer that timed degrees are important, and when people come to us with five-to-ten years of experience, maybe have participated in other training, we want to give them credit for that. I think, either the credit/non-credit route, and credit for prior learning are our two main ways to award credit.

How is education designed so that when technology advances, the skill set is still applicable.

That’s probably the most challenging part, because we all know that whatever we learn today doesn’t have a very long half life, so we have to think about what’s next. In our curriculum, we build about 80% of the content directly aligned with employer needs of today, and 20% would be general employability skills that could be transferred to any industry sectors.

I think that helps us develop that life-long learner mentality, that a skill set is going to be adapting as we go through time. A large portion of that 80% content is going to take a while to transition. If the student develops good learning skills in that 20%, they can make those adjustments as they go through.

We also encourage employers to continually invest in their employees in increments throughout their careers, so they don’t wait ten years to re-educate everyone from the beginning. The customized training approach works well, because we have standing contracts with many of our employers where every semester they bring a new group of students through to learn math skills, CNC skills, and robotics. One company sends 15 employees to learn robotics every semester. Do all 15 go back and run a robot? No. But at least they’re better equipped for when it is time to transition their particular job into another skill level.

With on-the-job training, I feel a lot of employers are hesitant to invest in that due to the amount of time and resources it takes. What do you see as the incentive employers need, and what are the benefits they can be notified of to be convinced to implement OJT opportunities?

We emphasize on the culture of the organization. When people feel empowered, and they feel respected and that you are investing in them, they are more likely to stay for other reasons than the finance.

If you look at companies that are just after the employee and how much work they can get out of them, they will attract some. If you want to retain, though, you have to increase your wages to stay competitive or you have to invest in other ways. We have a great company that does it. They have a weekly recognition awards program to incentive not only the employee with different events, but they support their families. They have family gatherings, scholarships for the children of employees, so they have a whole comprehensive approach to “how do we engage an employee to be more than just an everyday worker?” I think the culture is critical and we really hope to encourage workers to think about that as part of their overall technique.

Second thing is, we really encourage our employees to make that investment. So, if a student has finished a one-year diploma, immediately talk to them about their career goals. If they want to finish in two years associates degree, if they want a bachelors degree, how do you build that into their time-work experience. Doesn’t always have to be that employee would do this on their own and come and say “look at my degree.” You can tie in a couple hours a week, and tie in, encourage them to continue with their education and provide some sort of tuition reimbursement. Most of our companies have that model, they just haven’t thought about making it a part of their onboarding process.

Another thing to think about from the employer perspective is, “what is the work environment like?” If you’re only offering third-shift as your start, you might not accommodate the dynamics of a changing family structure. If you want to get a young person in, you’re going to have to be more flexible on working from home, and making sure there’s more alternative work environments available. Really creating that unique relationship with your employees. Some jobs, you have to be there—what are the other incentives for them?

How can employers be convinced to start apprenticeships?

That’s a model of continual investment. After points of success, whether it’s time or skill, employee skill is the primary incentive. I think that’s really critical, and I understand what you’re saying about apprenticeships, because many times it get a bad rep when people only know it as those skilled trades areas. And there are so many different types of apprenticeships, now, and many are recognized by the department of labor, and others are industry-grown apprenticeships. I know of one company, that if you are enrolled in your first semester at gateway is complete, you’re eligible for what they call an apprenticeship. That means you’re going to be working, and every semester they’ll put you in a different job in a different plant. You get to experience different people, you get to travel, they’ll give you some diverse experience so when you’re ready for your job, when you graduate, you might pick your location.

Another big challenge with apprenticeships is, typically it’s time-based, and you get nervous when it’s a five-year program, and that’s a long time to commit. So we’re seeing more of them move toward a competency based program, so kind of like the credit for prior learning. If you can accelerate your learning based on the skill sets you have and the industry that you’re in, you can shorten your apprenticeship time frame, which again, moves you faster up the career ladder and gives you a chance to earn more income. For the most part, the incentivizing concept is to stay engaged with your employees.

What is the root of the youth misconceptions on manufacturing?

Some of them are true. I think industry has a sense of responsibility to make organizations safer, more appealing and engaging, and to involve the employees in that process.

In general, here’s a parallel story with that. If you live in a house or go into a building, you hope the lights come on, but you really don’t know what’s happening behind the walls. There’s electrical wires that go in there, somebody installed it, someone put a fiber cable in. You just go in and say, “Oh, this is a cool room.”

Same with manufacturing. You really don’t see it. It’s not something on TV, or media stories. But you do see shows on healthcare, protective services. Manufacturing is still a secret, but it’s tough to get people in because of safety requirements and things. If I were a manufacturer, I would explain the product lines that you make in your community.

One of the things I’m amazed about is that when you drive around your community, any sort industrial park, you say “I didn’t know we made that in our community.” Be proud of what the end product is, and market the heck out of it so people know what you do. A lot of young people are really interested in making a social difference in the environment. If you know that your job at Insinkerator is to develop garbage disposals, but the goal is to safe water and protect the planet, that’s an entirely different message about manufacturing. I might go into manufacturing now because I, too, want to save water.

I would say another strength, through those partnerships, allowing students, teachers, and parents into the organization. If you have a group of fourth graders go through, but by the time lunch rolls around they would have forgotten what you said, because something else awesome happened in their world. You have to build that structure on a variety of levels. Counselors, parents, and make it more inclusive for the awareness of the potential careers of the income in those careers.

That takes a little bit of work because the employer has to prepare and plan for that. You can’t just open the doors and say “open house,” you need people who are going to explain to you the intrinsic value of manufacturing as well as all the career ladders that go along with it. Some level of marketing PR, but mostly, it’s still going to be sort of grassroots in your community. Do people know who you are, do they align with your values, are you proud of those values, and do you take care of your people and facilities? Most people get a job because they know someone who was already on that job.

Everything is made somewhere, what are all the impacts of how it’s made. And, not to narrowly define too much, but manufacturing includes everything—HR, business, IT, design, engineering, quality, production facility, supply chain management, customer rep, sales departments. You got all those dynamics. So no matter what you’re interested in, somewhere in that umbrella is a job for you.

How do students who decide to enter manufacturing trades get into that field?

We have a partnership with our high schools, we built our talent pipeline early. Dual enrollment programs are really important for us, so if there’s an experience in a technical area in a high school, we align it with Gateway, whether it’s a culinary program, a CNA nursing program, or an industrial technology machining program, those programs that teachers know each other, curriculums are aligned, credit is awarded, and you incentize students by saying, “you graduated high school with six college credits, why don’t you finish that up at Gateway?”

Another way to go about doing that is marketing. We have a social media platform, we have direct mail requirements, and anyone that searches Gateway, you’re likely to get a message now that’ll tell you, “thank you for searching Gateway. Here are some things you might be interested in.” Of course, we also celebrate our student’s successes, and really promote our students through social media interviews, all our billboards have student testimonials, and we really focus on what it’s like to be a student at Gateway. It’s like an employee will help you find your next employee, a student will help you find your next student. They go home and tell their friends. They tell their brothers and sisters that they had a great experience.

How can community members be exposed to various types of post-secondary educational opportunities?

Part of the challenge is that many of our K-12 teachers have gone through a four-year path. So that’s what they know and express to their students.

A couple of thoughts on that—this is how I explain it to parents. Ultimately, we all recognize that it’s very difficult to graduate with a baccalaureate degree in four years. So we plan for five or six years in many cases. But what if you can plan ahead and get a head start in high school. Take some college courses that are transferrable to a two or a four-year institution, and then finish your two-year degree at your local community or technical college. It’s a third of the cost, you build confidence in your ability to complete a college degree, you’ve built a network of support, and you probably have an employer who would hire you, and your employer brings you on to finish your last four years and pays for it. So, within those same four years, you’ve accomplished a two-year degree and a four-year degree at way less cost. If you want to extend to six years, you have a master’s degree. Along that journey are many different ways that you will motivated, excited, and encouraged to be a lifelong learner if you have a chance to apply it.

The career paths in the community college world are really focused on the word “community”. I think about all the jobs that are out there—how do the stoplights stay on, who’s running the traffic system, how did someone become a police officer, how do you become a barber, how do you become a dental assistant—those are all two year, technical trained jobs. And you can go through a list of so many of them that become this motivational tool for a student to say, I’m not only learning, I’m earning and learning and applying it in our community. Try to sell it that you’ll be more aware of the needs of your community and you’ll still end up with the academic credentials that you off.

Personalize the experience. We might have a whole class of students that want to come in and be automation technicians. Well, there’s a personal experience for every one of them. You can’t just say “hey, you’re all going to be the same automation technician.” They’re not. They’re working for different companies, a different culture, extend experiences in new ways, and become the best technician you can be.

How are educators within the K-12 education system more accurately understand how to teach manufacturing.

We run a summer program for high school teachers that helps them build their credentials and become certified in the technical college level. That’s an important part of what we do. We run externship programs, as I mentioned, so our teachers can go out into the community and work during the summer or their off-semester to gain additional skills. We have an incentive program for school districts in which we provide equipment for their labs, so they stay close because they want to be a part of the equipment. We share advisory committees, so our advisory industry partners also become part of the K-12 advisory partners.

We have five school districts with specific Gateway academies in the high school, and then in two of our districts we run a high school in partnership with the local district. So, we’re pretty tightly embedded in the teacher side of it, getting teachers exposed to all career paths by giving them access to campus facilities, faculty, and our curriculum. It’s not viewed as two separate systems.

If you visited our Lakeview center, as an example, it’s a traditional high school from 8 o’clock to 2 o’clock in the afternoon, but the instruction is delivered by college students. At 2 o’clock it turns into an adult learning environment, so those students turn into 23 year olds taking college courses.

If you went to our IMET center for manufacturing, the high school’s embedded in the same building. So you have 16 year old students working with 26 year old college adults with customized training of 36 year old employees. So it’s a very dynamic setting. Based on the needs of the teacher or the school district, we try to provide many different pathways to keep them connected to our college.

The last I’d say on that is, we also have opened an office in every high school, so we have new student specialists that are directly assigned to a high school at least two days a week, working with counselors, teachers, parents, helping kids make decisions about post-secondary education. We’ve made a financial investment to help build those bridges.

Are there any workforce development networks in your area?

Absolutely. We have the higher education regional alliance, which is all eighteen institutes of higher education. We meet monthly, we talk about ways in which we can better align and provide services to our community.

Of course, we have our regional workforce boards, they are all different providers of services to different individuals and education’s one of those services.

We have our Ford NGL national academy program, a network of high schools with academies.

We serve on all the boards of our economic development associations. And our general professional development organizations, like the association of community colleges, the Wisconsin association of technical education, the manufacturing skill standards council, the council for career development—we’re involved in all of those networks, and that’s a pretty extensive outreach.

Building upon other networks in the community—the boys and girls club—that’s an important network, the STRIVE network, and as for non-profits, habitat for humanity. They provide experiences for students outside of the classroom.

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