Tech college dean reflects on career

October 11, 2013

From “Calling it a career” — MARINETTE – Pat O’Hara calls today the golden age for technical colleges because the skills students leave with are those employers seek.

“It’s really job-specific technical skills that are a premium in the workforce right now,” he said.

O’Hara added that the workforce has changed significantly during the past 20 years.

“The demand locally, statewide and nationally is that everyone has some post high-school education but not necessarily a bachelor’s degree,” he said. “It could be something even more short-term such as a one- or two-year program.”

O’Hara, 63, who recently retired as campus dean of Northeast Wisconsin Technical College-Marinette after 141⁄2 years, will miss his colleagues the most.

“I’ve worked with some awfully good professional people who cared about their community,” he said.

It’s not the exemplary star student who comes to mind when O’Hara thinks about his tenure at the college.

“It’s the people who really needed the extra help you could affect at a time when they’re in need whether creating a GED program at the jail, working with dislocated workers or starting an emergency fund for students who needed some financial assistance,” he said.

O’Hara, a native of Council Bluffs, Iowa, received a bachelor’s degree in education from the University of Nebraska-Omaha and a master’s degree in education from Drake University in Des Moines.

He said education wasn’t just a job but a calling in the late 1960s and early ’70s.

“So we were saving the world,” O’Hara said. “It’s hard to lose that mentality that you were put on earth to save the world even though you knew you couldn’t.”

Students had a limited menu of options when he arrived in June 1999.

“Now we’re really a full service, comprehensive college campus,” O’Hara said.

Besides offering more programs and a larger curriculum for students to choose from, NWTC-Marinette also boasts a broader range of support services including academic and financial aid advising, counseling and testing and career services.

“And, of course, I did not do that alone in any way, shape or form,” O’Hara said, laughing. “These are things that happened while I was there. You never do anything alone. There’s no white horse, trust me.”

O’Hara just received a State of Wisconsin Citation by the Senate which recognizes his career and contributions for the past 26 years. During his tenure at NWTC-Marinette, O’Hara added new programs in health, business and trades; developed training programs for dislocated workers, particularly during plant closings during the 2008 recession; worked with the American Association For Community Colleges on bringing grants to the school to promote manufacturing careers and entrepreneurship; oversaw $4.1 million in NWTC building additions to the Marinette campus and North Coast Center on Main Street and increased campus enrollments by 75 percent.

NWTC-Marinette currently has about 430 full-time equivalency students and a total enrollment of more than 3,200 students. In 1999, it had about 250 full-time equivalency students and a total enrollment of about 1,200 students. The college also has about a 90 percent job placement rate in an occupation related to a student’s training within the first six months of graduation.

During retirement, O’Hara will serve as president of the board of directors at the Marinette-Menominee Area Chamber of Commerce, chairman of the Tri-City Area United Way Campaign Committee and intake coordinator for the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program through the college and United Way.

He’d also like to return to oil painting, sailing, kayaking, cross-country skiing and snowshoeing. O’Hara wants to spend more time with his nine grandchildren, too.

“Unfortunately, I like to eat too much and I didn’t seem to abandon that,” O’Hara said, laughing.


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