It’s a phrase that’s sounding more and more like a broken record around Marathon County, central Wisconsin, and even throughout much of the country: We have a talent crisis.
Engineering students at Northcentral Technical College work on an assignment during a class last fall at NTC. Engineering students can start their degree at NTC and transfer to Michigan Tech for their last year and a half of schooling.
Here’s a sobering statistic: In 2008, just as the effects of the recession were just starting to take hold, there were roughly 70,000 workers in Marathon County. That number dropped to 60,000 by 2010, and hasn’t changed much since. And as baby boomers retire in record numbers, not enough new skilled workers are showing up at the door to replace those retirees. This has left a talent gap in Marathon Countym, forcing the best minds in the area to find new ways to attract talent to the area while growing and nurturing the young workers already here in hopes of keeping them.
The talent gap was the focus of a recent Coffee Talk session hosted by the Wausau Region Chamber of Commerce at the Holiday Inn in Rothschild. The panel focused largely on educators, but that’s only one piece of the puzzle as everyone from business leaders to local government is looking for ways to make our area more attractive to young professionals.
Northcentral Technical College has been working on this issue for some time. Lori Weyers, President of NTC, can name a laundry list of programs the college uses to get more people through the educational pipeline, from welding programs at the jail to partnering with businesses that provide tuition assistance for qualified high school seniors who might otherwise have trouble paying for school.
The most illustrative? A program partnering with Michigan Tech allowing engineering students to complete 2 ½ years of a degree program at NTC, then finish up the last year and a half at the Houghton, Mich. campus.
Michigan Tech is well-known as an engineering school, but there’s a much more strategic reason the school was chosen. Compared to Houghton, Wausau looks like a big city and a much more exciting place to live, Weyers says. If they sent their students to Madison, Milwaukee, or Minneapolis, for example, the odds are substantially lower that those students would want to return to Wausau, Weyers says.
NTC has formed committees of business leaders to give educators a sense of what kind of workers are needed in the area, so they can better design programs to meet those needs. A good example is the IT program, which has grown by leaps and bounds. Once NTC offered four IT programs; today, the school offers more than a dozen.
The idea is not lost on university officials, either. UW-Stevens Point, for example. worked with Sentry to help develop a new data analytics program that was put together in less than a year, says Vice Chancellor of Academic Affairs Greg Summers.
Sentry is then working with students in the program to give them real world experience working on projects, while offering potential future employment with the company.
A big part of what many institutions are working on is making degrees more accessible. UW Colleges, for example, offers something called a flex degree, says UW Colleges Northern Regional Dean Keith Montgomery. The degree, in a range of fields including communication and business management, is completed through online modules, Montgomery says. Each module has a test-out option — a student who thinks they know the material through real world experience, can take the test and pass the module. It saves the student from having to revisit what they already know from working in their field, while at the same time making it easier for area employees to grow their skill and knowledge level.
Attracting a young, skilled workforce goes well beyond the education system. The city of Wausau recently launched a record-breaking development project along its riverfront in order to bring young professionals (along with empty nesters) into downtown, to provide the mode of living they are more likely to gravitate toward. The project is also paired with an expensive and elaborate parks project, which includes such things as a wharf for launching boats, a completed bike trail along the Wisconsin River, games like giant chess and checkers, and even a climbing wall. All that provides a motive for young professionals to move here, city officials say, but also to make the place attractive to future employees who might be considering a job here.
Just how do you get them here? Ask Nick O’Brien, MCDEVCO’s community engagement specialist. O’Brien is working to bring a program similar to Fox Valley’s Talent Upload here, which brings college students from outside the area in to see what Wausau is all about. Funded by area employers, it’s typically more cost-effective than bringing people to town individually for recruitment. O’Brien says Fox Valley’s Talent Upload has been successful and he wants to bring that success here.
Other local organizations, such as the Wausau River District, are working to make the downtown more attractive and fun. The First Thursdays series, for example, has won awards for making the first Thursday of the summer months a festive evening of music and art throughout downtown. And The Grand Theater in 2016 launched its 10×10 series, which brings national musical acts to the Grand Theater at prices much lower than its typical offerings.
Those things are important because multiple studies done by organizations such as Pew Research show that those young professionals in the Millennial generation are more concerned with the place they’re moving to than the job itself. Making an area an attractive place to live is as much a recruiting tool today as is a 401k or a health insurance plan.
The talent gap is widening, both here and abroad, and it’s going to take a community wide effort to keep the Wausau area and central Wisconsin ahead of the curve.