Business, education, community leaders discuss workforce issues

March 20, 2014

From ricelakeonline.com: “Work ethic, character issues are problems for employers” — There isn’t a lack of jobs in Barron County. There’s a lack of employable people.

That was the theme of the Barron County Workforce Skills Conference, which gathered business, education and community leaders together to discuss local workforce issues Monday, March 17 at Wisconsin Indianhead Technical College.
The problem, often called a skills gap, is only expected to worsen as baby boomers retire.

In Northwest Wisconsin there are now more people who are 65 than who are 18. That ratio is expected to broaden for the next decade or more.

The results of a survey of 46 Barron County employers were presented at the conference. Many reported a lack of qualified applicants for jobs.

“Businesses are looking to add or recruit people they can’t find,” said Beth Mathison of Manpower Eau Claire.

The skills most needed according to respondents were in customer service, general maintenance, office skills, computer/technical skills, skilled trades, banking/accounting, sales, welding and machining.

In predicting future needs, employees with general office, robotics and masonry skills were mentioned the most.

But it was a lack of basic or “soft” skills that got people talking.

Survey respondents made such comments as “don’t seem to have a strong work ethic,” “nobody wants to talk anymore; they want to email/text everything” and “lack of interpersonal skills is appalling.”

Conference attendee Dane Deutsch, owner of a gymnastics center and IT company, said, “I’ve never fired one person for a tech skill. It has always been a character issue.”

Another attendee said, “If you gave me a choice, I’ll take the person with the critical skills. I can teach the tech skills.”

The survey showed the biggest soft skill deficiencies, in order, were ability to organize and use information, integrity/honesty, speaking, creativity, customer service, reading, writing and problem solving.

In regard to improving the workforce, soft skills was rated ‘most important’ by more than 50% of respondents, followed by occupational skills, specific competencies and educational skills.

Respondents said the most important soft skills, in order by percentage, were attendance/punctuality, initiative/motivation, integrity/honesty, productivity, teamwork and customer service.

Education
Barron School District Superintendant Craig Broeren said soft skills are emphasized in the school system, but home environment is also key to what kind of adult a student becomes.

Some survey respondents suggested the next generation of workers doesn’t have the right attitude toward work and finding work and aren’t being prepared accordingly in schools.

But Chetek-Weyerhaeuser High School principal Larry Zeman said the average adult would not fare well in the advanced placement calculus or chemistry classes students are taking now.

“What kids know now far surpasses anything I knew when I graduated in 1981,” he said.

But even that may not be enough to guarantee career success.

“The last time we hired someone with just a high school diploma was 10 years ago,” said Dan Conroy, an executive at Nexen Group, an advanced manufacturer with a site in Webster.

Conroy said 70% of Nexen employees have a 2-year degree and can get a starting wage of nearly $20 an hour and work up to $35 an hour.

“We’re successful because we’ve gone high-tech, have well-educated employees and pay well,” he said.

Zeman agreed a 2-year degree is a good option for many students.

“We’ve made a concerted effort in out school district to not fool kids into 4 years or nothing else,” he said.

Zeman also said his district is investing $250,000 to upgrade technical education equipment and offer more welding and machine tool classes in a partnership with local technical colleges.

The school district is also trying to build connections with local businesses to create more learning opportunities.

Jim Woods, representing Wisconsin Voices from the Classroom, presented the results of a survey of 1,973 state teachers, 80% of which said there should be more interaction between schools and business.

The survey also showed 67% of responding teachers believe the educational system is on the “wrong track.” Many also said schools do not have enough money to educate students well, and many feel unappreciated as teachers.
“It is a population who thinks they’re not getting enough support from the general public,” said Woods.

But he also said the survey also showed many teachers, particularly younger ones, are willing to change to better student education.
“The only way we’re going to get there is having more discussions like this,” said Woods.

Skill Survey
The survey was conducted by the Barron County Economic Development Corporation in partnership with the Rice Lake Chamber of Commerce and Economic Development Committee.

The survey was distributed through other chamber of commerce groups, the BCEDC website, meetings, individual requests and business newsletters.
Most respondents, in order by percentage, were in the manufacturing, construction, health and community services, hotel/restaurant/entertainment or retail and sales industries.

Nearly 75% of respondents had been in business more than 20 years. About 80% had experienced increased or unchanged sales from 2012-2013. About one-third planned to add employees in 2013.

 

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