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Bridging the skill gap

Moving toward a balanced workforce labor supply

State Rep. Romaine Quinn is a Republican from Rice Lake and represents the state’s 75th Assembly District. Before being elected to the state Legislature in 2014, he served as mayor of Rice Lake from 2010 to 2012.

State Rep. Romaine Quinn is a Republican from Rice Lake and represents the state’s 75th Assembly District. Before being elected to the state Legislature in 2014, he served as mayor of Rice Lake from 2010 to 2012.

Throughout Wisconsin’s legislative districts, my colleagues and I are getting the same message from employers: Don’t bring family-supporting, skilled jobs here – we can’t find enough workers to fill the openings we already have.

Employers tell me how much they’re struggling. Well-paying jobs that could support a family stay open, and they can’t find people with the right skill and experience to fit the positions

The numbers bear this out. A recent study by the workforce-research company ManpowerGroup Solutions showed that in Wisconsin in 2014, the demand for skilled jobs requiring only a high school education outstripped the supply of those jobs by 10 percentage points. That means that good jobs in the trades – mechanics, construction work, etc. – need far more skilled workers than we have available. A study by Iowa State University pointed to another concern: a long-term trend of skilled laborers moving from rural to urban areas.

Taken together, this means that our skilled workforce needs a major boost.

With today’s emphasis on going to a four-year college, most students give little thought to their other options. And it’s true: For many students, graduating from a four-year college is a ticket to a great career.

But that’s not true for every student; many feel left out by the college drumbeat. Many try college anyway, and find the experience is not for them. They leave after a year or two with significant debt and questions about what to do next. And many simply know that a four-year college is not the route they want to take – that their interests, talents and passions lie elsewhere.

It’s time to ensure that every student can follow his or her best path. Wisconsinites have a work ethic and can-do attitude that are second to none. And Wisconsin can expand our talent pool and get back to our fullest capacity at all levels.

My colleagues and I in the Legislature are working on this. We agree that keeping young people and young families in our rural communities will keep these communities vital and thriving into the next generation. And we are working in conjunction with our great industrial centers to power growth in the state. Priming the pump for the skilled trades will provide a boom for companies throughout Wisconsin.

Getting there will require a cultural change. We need to reaffirm the dignity of work in our state – to recognize the worth of the men and women who build our roads and houses, who manufacture the goods we depend on, and who install the machinery our companies depend on. Skilled work is valuable and meaningful, and contributes greatly to the material comforts we all enjoy.

Through the Rural Wisconsin Initiative, my colleagues and I are working on ways to expand students’ exposure to a wide range of opportunities. Links between schools and industry are a significant way to get students involved in the kinds of skilled jobs that are available: That’s why we have introduced a package of bills that includes calls to increase spending on youth apprenticeship programs that let students explore their options in a variety of trades. I am proud to say that Governor Walker has seen the value of these ideas and has included them in his budget proposal this year.

Other programs also help build the kinds of “education-industry relationships” that Wisconsin needs to end our shortage of skilled labor. Rep. Mary Felzkowsk, of Irma, has strongly supported the expansion of FabLabs – Fabrication Laboratories tied to schools, which give students an opportunity to learn programming, gain exposure to manufacturing and prepare to contribute to the 21st Century workforce. Others, like Rep. Travis Tranel, of Cuba City, have contributed bills that, as part of the Rural Wisconsin Initiative, would support STEM schools that concentrate on teaching students what they will need to know when they graduate. Other proposals include expansions of the Apprenticeship Completion Awards Grant and a call for setting up Rural Opportunity Zones that would encourage Wisconsinites who have lived outside the state for five years to return to rural areas.

And remember those students who didn’t find a path in a four-year college? Rep. Scott Krug, of Nekoosa, is sponsoring a bill to let two-year and technical colleges reach out those students and let them know about the job-training and technical programs they offer, to help ease their paths into the workforce.

When Wisconsin comes together, we can accomplish anything. By harnessing all of our resources, encouraging schools and business to forge connections, and recognizing the value of all work, we can build a workforce that is fully responsive to 21st century demands while also reinvigorating our rural communities and moving our state forward. The opportunities Wisconsin offers are endless, but we cannot wait – bridging the skills gap now will keep us on the path of prosperity.

State Rep. Romaine Quinn is a Republican from Rice Lake and represents the state’s 75th Assembly District. Before being elected to the state Legislature in 2014, he served as mayor of Rice Lake from 2010 to 2012.

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