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When the leaders of the biotechnology program at Madison College saw an industry need for laboratory technicians who could work with all types of stem cells, they hustled to come up with a plan.
After discussing the idea with college administrators and board members, the biotech faculty forged ahead with a proposal that attracted National Science Foundation support as well as backing from private companies.
Last week, less than three years after the stem cell education sequence was launched with humble facilities, a gleaming Advanced Cell Culture Education lab opened in remodeled space with state-of-the-art equipment. It will immediately triple the capacity of the college (formerly known as Madison Area Technical College) to graduate students with hands-on experience in growing and analyzing all types of stem cells and other advanced cells.
Across Wisconsin, there are other examples of colleges and universities - especially two-year institutions such as those in the Wisconsin Technical College System - of turning on a dime to meet industry needs and trends.
Those trends range from the need for lab technicians who understand the exacting protocols of working with stem cells, which are the building blocks for all types of human cells, to helping businesses find tech-savvy production workers or information technology specialists.
The notion of higher education becoming more nimble is gaining national attention, especially at a time when Wisconsin and the United States are grappling with the "job paradox" - the gap between high unemployment and skilled positions going unfilled for lack of trained (or trainable) workers.
It's also part of the debate over the costs of higher education, not only for taxpayers in states where budgets are strapped, but for students themselves, who sometimes amass onerous debts related to the cost of earning a four-year degree but find themselves lacking marketable skills.
Layer on to those challenges the issue of an aging workforce - something that worries Wisconsin employers as the baby boom generation begins to retire - and the need for collaborative, cost-effective solutions emerges.
"Houston, we have a problem, and it's not that too few people are going to college," said Michael Bettersworth, an associate vice chancellor at the Texas State Technical College System. "It's that too many people are getting degrees with limited value in the job market."
Texas is an example of a state where all of the same problems that confront Wisconsin are coming to a head, and made even more pressing because the economy there is growing at the fastest rate in the nation. In Texas, some companies are manufacturing in community colleges to produce the workers they need.
Economic recovery is also under way in Wisconsin, which means it will be vital for policy-makers, business leaders and educators to embrace ideas that will create a sustained supply of skilled, adaptable workers.
Partnerships with business and higher education in Wisconsin are not uncommon, and they range from enduring relationships between industry and technical colleges (Snap-on and Gateway Technical College, for example) to broader industry consortia such as those at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and UW-Milwaukee.
The question is whether enough is changing, and fast enough, to meet the needs of Wisconsin industry in search of skilled workers.
Gov. Scott Walker announced last week he will create a College and Workforce Readiness Council to focus on closing the skills gap and designing "shorter, less costly degree programs" to fill the need for skilled technical workers. Members of the Wisconsin Legislature have introduced their own ideas, as well. One such bill would allow the unemployed to continue receiving jobless benefits as they take special occupational training. Another would allow the state Department of Workforce Development to recruit laid-off workers to be trained by businesses.
Higher education has a stake in helping students earn degrees faster - and to help those same students pursue degrees that are right for them. Not every college degree is directly marketable, of course, nor will it be in an economy so prone to technical change. But even the holder of a classic liberal arts degree should emerge with communications, creativity and teamwork skills, all of which are essential in the modern marketplace.
There's also a misperception - often among parents of college-bound students - that the worst bachelor's degree is worth more than the best associate degree. In today's economy, that's no longer true, which means the burden falls on parents and high-school counselors to present an array of career options.
Higher education must learn to be quicker on its feet, and traditional industries must do a better job of portraying a 21st century image. Both are essential for Wisconsin to meet its workforce challenges, today and tomorrow.Recent articles by Tom Still
Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal.
The opinions expressed herein or statements made in the above column are solely those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of WTN Media LLC. WTN accepts no legal liability or responsibility for any claims made or opinions expressed herein.