Teen machines

Taxpayers approved spending $5.9 million to improve Wausau high schools’ tech programs. What did they get?

It’s a Monday afternoon, and the sound of machines cutting through metal ricochets off cement block walls in an industrial room. People in safety goggles run machines, creating products for area buyers.

In case you’re picturing a factory in an industrial park somewhere, let’s clarify that all this is going on at a high school.

In spring 2015, local voters approved by referendum $29.5 million in building and upgrade projects for the Wausau Area School District. Among those was $5.9 million to revamp and expand the technology career programs at Wausau East and West high schools.

What did Wausau taxpayers get for that $5.9 million? If all goes according to plan, a more skilled and rooted workforce in central Wisconsin.

According to the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development, nearly 3 million workers are now employed in the state—the most since at least 1994.

But many of those people won’t be in the workforce for much longer, because they’re near retirement age. It’s the Baby Boomer demographic bulge. Right now about 5% of the U.S. is above the age of 65. By 2025, it’ll be 6.3%. Coupled with the fact that there aren’t enough young people to replace them, one thing becomes clear. The economy is running out of workers.

It’s especially problematic in places that typically don’t attract a lot of young adults. Companies in


Wausau West High School senior Eric Kurtzweil says the manufacturing programs helped him decide on his future career, in residential building.

Marathon County already are struggling to find enough people to fill jobs, and it’ll only get worse. Most areas in the state already are near what’s considered “full employment” already—4% unemployment or less.

Those demographics were in mind when Jon Winter, technical education coordinator for the Wausau School District, talked to me in his office at the district’s Longfellow Administration Building.

I’d written a dozen stories already about how area leaders are scrambling to find a solution to a crisis in recruiting workforce talent—how they’re making the Wausau area attractive to young people with the hope they’ll come here and set down roots. Those efforts include everything from hip new housing along the river near downtown, to public works projects and the cultivation of young professional groups.

The school district is carrying out its own efforts, Winter says: “You’ve heard about the workforce problem — now hear about the solution.”

Northcentral Technical College already has made strides to address workforce shortages. Panels of industry experts in the information technology sector, for example, meet regularly to help shape NTC curriculum; its IT program offerings have increased four-fold in response to that feedback.

The Wausau School District is doing the same communicating with the private sector. Its technical education leaders meet regularly with local manufacturing leaders, for example, to shape what skills are taught in the high schools, and to provide students with work experience even before they graduate.

All this, plus tech courses, were happening before 2016, of course. But the referendum allowed schools to revamp and modernize the space and equipment for an expanding career programs.

Technology advances at such a pace, that these industry meetings help ensure that students are learning the foundational skills for technical jobs, Winter says. And you need a space to accommodate all this new education.

The $5.9 million construction and upgrade projects at Wausau West and Wausau East high


Lincoln Meverden and other classmats at Wausau West operate a fabrication machine in the new metals department.

schools were completed last summer for the 2016-17 school year. Some programs benefited with whole new spaces; others saw major renovations to existing classrooms and workshops.

Going through these various technology programs at East and West, one thing is clear: If you’re over the age of 30, throw out everything you remember about “shop class.”

You might have built a birdhouse or a tool box. These kids are building wooden plaques with photos laser etched onto their surface. They’re building wooden lockers for their school’s hockey team; they’re rebuilding automobiles so that low income individuals can have reliable transportation.

Students must be seeing the value, too. The 817 now enrolled in these technology programs represent the most students, by ratio, than the district has seen in recent years.

Wausau West

At Wausau West High School, a new addition added space for agriculture and manufacturing classes. Renovations modernized the graphics, robotics and broadcast classrooms

One of the first places Winter took me through was Wausau West’s new engineering-manufacturing workshop. Part computer lab, part makerspace, the space contains everything from robotics to 3D printers. Courses were designed with the programs and skills industry leaders asked for. If it has to do with STEM (science, technology, engineering and math), it can probably be found in this area.

Instead of a solid wall, large new windows in the hallway offer a view into this new space, to help show off all the cool gadgets and gizmos contained therein. That’s by design, Winter says. “We’re trying to generate more interest within STEM,” Winter says. “We made sure we added windows so students could see the unique things occurring in the classrooms.”

Another revamped room holds a complete graphics print shop. It’s actually a functioning business


Brandyn Darling works on a saw in the manufacturing area of Wausau West.

that completes many of the school’s printing needs, and for some outside organizations, too. Students don’t just learn how printing works, they learn the business side, too.

Woods and metal production commonly were housed together in the same “shop” facility. Industry leaders told school district officials that’s a mistake in today’s more advanced manufacturing world. So Wausau West now has separate spaces that allowed for new equipment specific to woods or metal, as well as dedicated classrooms to each.

That equipment includes computer-controlled plasma tables that precisely cut or engrave metal with a torch. Students first learn how to operate the machines manually, then how to program designs that the computer cuts. That’s paired with a robust computer aided design (or, CAD) program; industry professionals told school officials that many job candidates lacked a knowledge of CAD software.

Businesses didn’t just make requests. Numerous times during the walkthrough, Winter points out a piece of equipment or supplies that a local company has paid for or donated.

Nearby is a full broadcasting room (also part of the upgrade), replete with cameras, lighting and an anchor desk donated last year by WSAW. Students broadcast daily TV announcements to the entire school.

One of the biggest surprises? The school’s ag program.


Wausau East senior Kallista Hampton is one of many women who have flocked to the agricultural programs, and now it’s more than farm kids signing up, educators say.

Its upgrade included a whole new greenhouse built specifically in a corner of Wausau West that takes advantage of the sun. East High got additional classroom space for its ag classes.

The surprise is that, of the 155 East and West students in the agriculture program, more than half

(55% in fact) are girls. And now it’s not just farm kids enrolling in these programs.

Kallista Hampton, a senior at Wausau East, can list a number of reasons she gravitated toward the ag programs, and most would surprise you. She lauds the leadership skills, including public speaking experience, she picked up from her time in the Future Farmers of America. The science involved in agriculture really spoke to her. And she values her internship on a dairy farm milking cows.

Hampton says she isn’t a literal future farmer of America, though. She plans to study neonatal care (nursing) after high school. While that’s not an ag field, some of the medical knowledge she picked up in veterinary science classes will come in handy.

School officials aren’t sure why the program is full of girls like Hampton, who have no direct experience with farming. “When FFA came around, it piqued my interest,” Hampton says. “I thought I would give it a shot, and I’ve been hooked ever since.”

Wausau East


Vincent Treu works on a project at Wausau East’s newly renovated manufacturing area.

There are a lot of similarities between the expanded tech programs at Wausau East and West high schools; and where there is not, students are able to cross schools to take advantage of what they’re most interested in. East’s improvements also included newly renovated robotics, metals, woods, broadcast and graphics spaces.

What separates the improvements at East is the automotive department, a newly built addition with classroom space, a repair shop, and even a paint mixing room—one of the few of its kind in the state.

It’s far more than a garage. A classroom complete with computers was important, Winter says, because automotive repair today involves both computer programming and mechanics. The 135 students in the automotive program range from those taking an automotive awareness class to those delving into power mechanics.

The 9,000-square-foot department got support from the Wisconsin Automotive and Truck Education Association in the form of equipment and vehicles to fix through WATEA’s Wheels to Work program that pairs a low-cost, reliable vehicle to qualified low-income people. The program supports a good cause, and trains future mechanics.

Transportation is among the industries hurting for workers, says Becky Zoromski, executive director of the WATEA. Whether it’s in auto repair, or truck driving, “I challenge you to find a business that isn’t looking for workers,” Zoromski says. Contributing to programs such as Wausau East’s automotive program helps develop a pipeline of workers.

That’s also true of metal manufacturing. Dean Peterson of Schuette Metals says their production


Sam Meyers at work in the expanded manufacturing lab at Wausau East.

 facility is always looking to fill about six or seven positions at any one time. Rather than each manufacturer running its own costly training program, it makes sense to partner with schools and other businesses to help students develop enough skills to land a good-paying job when they graduate.

A machinist or welder at Schuette Metals can expect to make between $16 to $18 per hour starting out, Peterson says; experienced workers can earn in the $50,000 range. And there are plenty of these jobs available. But, “It’s becoming harder and harder to find skilled labor,” Peterson says.

Schuette Metals currently has taken in two students through the district’s Youth Apprenticeship program, in which students work part-time at participating businesses to earn some money, get real job experience, and earn class credit at school. Schuette Metals would like to add two more young people to its program, Peterson says.

Winter says 48 students currently are enrolled in apprenticeships between both high schools, in areas such as manufacturing, health care, automotive and pharmacy. While the program has been around for decades, Winter expects it will grow as more students become interested and more businesses offer the job opportunities.

Filling the need, by the numbers

State economic development experts at a February summit in Rothschild all pointed to the same problem that Wausau area residents are accustomed to hearing: The state has a worker talent shortage that will only get worse.

Ray Allen, Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development secretary, says that the agency has almost completely shifted its mindset from attracting businesses to Wisconsin, to attracting young talent and developing the workforce that’s here.

“We changed our focus,” Allen says. “Workforce development is the new economic development.”

Data from Workforce Development shows that Wisconsin added more than 198,000 private sector jobs in the past six years (that includes 5,500 jobs in the Wausau area). Of those jobs, 37,000 have been in manufacturing statewide. Wisconsin has reached what economists call “full employment” — 4% unemployment or less.

Sounds like good news, right? In a lot of ways it is, if you’re looking for a job. It’s not such great news for businesses looking to fill positions.

Economists predict the state will add 196,000 more jobs between 2014 and 2024—about 20,000 per year.

There’s another big number at play here: the 76,000 jobs per year that require replacement as older workers retire or move into higher positions. Yet there aren’t enough young people in the demographic pipeline. The Wausau School District enrollment numbers, for example, have seen a slow but steady decline since at least 1998.

That’s why the state is looking to start on workforce development at the K-12 level. “We’re taking the Ted Thompson approach,” Allen said at the summit, referring to the Green Bay Packers general manager. “Counting on in-migration (of young people) is like the approach of signing a bunch of free agents. We can’t rely on that, so we have to grow our own.”

Part of that effort, and something Winter referred to as well, is a state-wide program for academic career planning. Students starting in sixth grade will work with a software called Career Cruising to start developing an academic and career plan. In the early stages students are mostly exploring different potential career paths. Only as they enter high school does that exploration transition into career planning and preparation.

Wausau West High School senior Eric Kurtzweil already has a good idea of what path he’ll take after graduation.

During my tour, Kurtzweil entered the woodworking area after a short classroom session, and set to work on building his latest wood project. He has taken four manufacturing classes in both woods and metals, and they helped shape his career path, Kurtzweil says. He gives one example of a challenging project: a drill rack that he had to engineer as well as build.

Kurtzweil initially wanted to be a dairy farmer, but now plans to enter Northcentral Technical College’s residential building program. The manufacturing classes at Wausau West really helped shape his future career path, Kurtzweil says. “[The classes] are really hands on, and you get an understanding of what you want to do in life,” Kurtzweil says. “It’s real world stuff that you’ll do when you get out in the field.”