Pat Acker: Prepare students for the ‘new-collar’ jobs of the future

Originally published in the Wisconsin State Journal – March 30, 2019

Wisconsin’s economy is booming, with unemployment near all-time lows and employers desperate for qualified workers. This is great news for young people just entering the workforce, who are affected for a very long time by the economic conditions of their initial job years.

It’s a more difficult situation for employers, who can’t find enough skilled workers. They are setting aside time to train people with little or no related experience and praying they’ll stick around for more than a few months. In the long run, if we don’t get this fixed, it’s going to limit Wisconsin’s economic growth.

Now is a great time to start thinking more systematically about preparing today’s students to enter this new job market. For too long, K-12 education has been overly focused on college prep. We went from thinking college was the right choice for some students to the only choice for every student. And yet in the coming years Wisconsin is projected to add many more “new-collar” jobs that don’t require a bachelor’s degree.

Now more than ever, we must reposition ourselves to make sure we’re prepared to take on this influx of opportunities. The key will be bridging the gap between the classroom and the workplace, and doing so will require collaboration between Wisconsin’s educators and businesses.

This starts with doing a better job of showing students that college isn’t their only option. If they’re exposed early to in-demand industries they may have never considered on their own, high school students and their parents can proactively assess their strengths and passions and have a clear idea of what career pathway they want to pursue.

They don’t have to wait to put that plan into motion either. Students can start taking supplemental classes and acquiring relevant skills while they’re still in school, jumpstarting their life after high school and giving them an advantage over their peers. Doing so is definitely manageable. In fact, a majority of the students participating in our heavy machinery pathway are enrolled part-time at the Destinations Career Academy of Wisconsin while still taking at least some classes in their resident school district.

In addition to helping close the skills gap, this approach helps solve area employers’ hardships, too. At a young age, students are able to learn the technical skills they need to excel in some of the state’s biggest industries, like manufacturing, engineering or agriculture and natural resources. Instead of hiring someone who has no idea what they are doing and having to invest hundreds, if not thousands of dollars in time spent teaching them what to do, employers will have a career-ready talent pool to pick from shortly after students get their diplomas.

Employers can further ensure they are getting qualified, capable workers by partnering with schools to set up workplace visits and campus tours. This will help students visualize whether an employer’s workplace is an environment in which they see themselves, and even if it isn’t, employers still benefit because it reveals which individuals are the most committed and therefore the least likely to leave after only a short period of time.

Employers can also set up internship and apprenticeship programs that provide potential employees with the hands-on experience they need. Externships, or experiential learning opportunities, are also an option, one which the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 139 is taking advantage of this April. At their training center in Coloma, the Wisconsin Operating Engineers will give attending students, educators, administrators and counselors a tour of their 400-acre facility, encourage them to interact with simulators, hold an apprentice and contractor panel and provide information on Destinations Career Academy of Wisconsin’s pre-apprenticeship program.

Our educators and employers must work together if we want Wisconsin’s economy to stay strong. Developing connections, establishing relationships and creating learning opportunities outside of the traditional classroom is the answer. The question is: What are we waiting for?

For more information on Destinations Career Academy of Wisconsin, visit

KEYWORDS: Wisconsin

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