There's good news coming out of Wisconsin's network of technical colleges. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel recently reported that enrollment at the state's 16 technical colleges is up 40 percent over the last decade, which aligns well with the state's prediction that middle-level jobs will grow at a higher-than-average rate throughout the next decade.
These 16 schools enroll more than 400,000 students and are widely considered to be the state's main artery to economic development. In fact, last year enrollment at Western Technical College in La Crosse increased by 9.5 percent.
Bill Berge, Fox Valley Technical College's associate dean of manufacturing technologies and apprenticeship, told the Post-Crescent, Appleton, Wis., that his welding instructors have never been busier and are practically bending over backward to accommodate the sheer volume of students. The article also reported a boom in welding-related jobs, with companies like Oshkosh Corp., Marinette Marine, and Caterpillar all looking to hire welders.
That's great news for welders and manufacturing in Wisconsin.
Here's the bad news. Because Wisconsin faces a multimillion-dollar budget deficit, funding for these programs (among other things) is at risk for some fairly sizable cuts. Under the current budget proposal, reported the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Western Technical College alone would suffer a $4.5 million cut in state aid over two years, exposing a 4.5 percent funding gap.
This sounds all too familiar. In the November/December 2010 Editor's Corner ("A paradox in welding education," p. 6) I discussed increased enrollment in welding classes at community and technical schools paired with decreased funding.
The worst-case scenario for Wisconsin is that funding for welding programs will be eliminated entirely, which was the case for one reader in Illinois. In response to that editorial, a part-time welding instructor at a suburban Chicago community college wrote in to say that the welding program at his school had been cut completely.
Politicians and lawmakers need to take a serious look at the needs of their state. Companies are hiring. Workers know companies are hiring and are turning to technical programs in droves to ready themselves for these employment opportunities. Yet the funding for these technical programs is getting cut. It doesn't make sense.
Certainly, concessions must be made somewhere to help address the shortfalls in Wisconsin's budget. I'm not here to preach about where those concessions should come from or to support or bash a particular political party. I'm here simply to express my hope that Wisconsin and other states facing a similar budget crunch will take a hard look at how certain budget cuts will affect future economic development. Cutting deep into programs like welding education that contribute to the state's economic growth just doesn't seem like the right answer.