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At 7 a.m. Carson Johannsen, 19, is working in a lab for his machine tooling techniques program at Chippewa Valley Technical College. By lunchtime he’s learning math and later programming.

By 4 p.m. he starts his shift at W.S. Darley & Co., where he will stay until 8:30 p.m. But then he begins homework.

His weekends don’t offer much of a break, either – Johannsen has another job.

And he’ll repeat that cycle until he earns his associates degree from CVTC. Yet, in his second semester at the collage, the Eau Claire native already has a career in the field he’s studying, applying what he’s been taught in his classroom on a computer numerical control (CNC) machine, for W.S. Darley in Chippewa Falls.

“They’ve done a really great job for me,” Johannsen said. “They’ve helped me out a lot; it honestly just feels like I get paid to go to school for four extra hours a day.”

Johannsen is just one of a multitude students at CVTC who are already working in the fields they are studying at the college. The college’s Dean of skilled trades, engineering and manufacturing, Jeff Sullivan, said many students within the trades and engineering programs at CVTC are already employed in their careers early on into their education at the college.

Between a partnership with local businesses in creating an advisory board of those employers to flexible programming options for students, CVTC and local employers are working to offer a local solution to a declining workforce.

And it’s a problem not lost on employers and educators.

“We currently have seven jobs per student,” said Dave Thompson, program director and machine tool instructor at CVTC.

Owner of Vincent Tool in Lake Hallie, Kenny Skar, said the reality of more jobs than there is skilled workers is true for all industries.

Chief Operating Officer and Vice President at Darley, Jeff Darley, said their company is also struggling to find “young, energetic people.”

“We at Darley are in the same position as many manufacturers in the Chippewa valley are, and it’s, we have a worker shortage,” Darley said.

Creating Partnerships

Students in various labs on any given day at CVTC can be seen working on welding projects, designing on computers and programing robotics. Their tasks come from curriculum formulated by their expert teachers wielded from special consideration among business leaders and the college, Sullivan said.

The college hosts an advisory council with businesses where leaders can express their concerns and skills they are in need of in their industries and the college can gauge where the modernization of their students’ education is headed, Sullivan said.

Tim Tewalt, program director at CVTC’s Industrial Mechanics program, said the councils meet in the fall to discuss the new equipment and tools students will need to master in their fields, while a spring meeting is held to discuss curriculum changes and skills the trades have picked up.

Tewalt, who has been with CVTC for more than 20 years, described the phenomenon like that of the once reliable-now-outdated floppy disk. The function of the disk is still to save files, much like more fluid, larger systems of USB or external drives of today, but is no longer relevant.

“(It’s) still saving but obsolete, because no one is doing that way,” Tewalt said.

On that same token, students are continually inundated with new technology and new ways of learning that technology. It’s programming options made on advice by local employers that are done to encourage more students to enter the trades, Skar said.

“We try to keep the school on cutting edge so the students want to be enroll there,” said Skar, a CVTC graduate.

The schedule Johannsen follows during his school day is just one kind of schedule students can have at CVTC, Sullivan said.

An apprenticeship program allows students to come into class for a limited number of weeks from elsewhere while they learn a new skill, while still maintaining a career. This program is sponsored by employers or labor groups and allows students the chance to earn a living while learning.

Other programs have shifts, where students come to labs and classes in morning, midday or nightly increments, and some students don’t have classes on Fridays to allow them to take up weekend work more easily.

Some students, Sullivan explained, may only be taking one semester of classes to receive a certification through their employer while others are there for a 2-year program to earn a degree. Some programs also offer five entry dates into the program throughout the year.

This is done, Tewalt explained, to not only cater to students’ schedules but also to the types of students who use the labs and classrooms for their own career improvement. Some students may be in their 30s or 40s with families a full job, while others are just out of high school taking the next educational step.

At Darley, Johannsen said the company has been understanding of his flexible schedule and sees him as a student first, especially if he has a project or school work he has to finish.

Furthermore, explained Thompson, CVTC’s connections with employers and technical college designation allows the college to make program changes, updates and additions quickly, without the constraints of a four-year university.

But the problem, explained Jon Brutlag, department chair of CVTC’s automation, engineering and technology program, doesn’t lie with the programs and services offered at CVTC — it instead lies within getting more students into their programs and into the workforce faster.

“I think we’re doing a great job in preparing people with the skill that’s needed in the region; we’re not putting out enough students,” Brutlag said. “We don’t have enough raw material of students coming in through the door.”

Brutlag added that many of the graduates from the program he teaches will leave with two-to-three job offers to choose from.

And he makes sure those interested in programs at CVTC know about the options.

“I tell perspective students, if you want to go someplace and work 12 to eight hour shifts, we have that job for you. Engineering and design? We have that for you,” Brutlag said. “Want one with travel? We have all of those opportunities available.”

From what Sullivan has observed, less high school students are entering CVTC’s trades programs, but he encouraged students with an interest in technology and working with their hands to consider a tour of a local facility or labs.

“It’s really advanced; it’s a clean environment,” Sullivan said.

For Skar, the misconception of industries being dirty and back-breaking work in every facet of manufacturing is outdated.

“It’s not the dark dirty, dingy, old manufacturing of years past, which people may steer away from it,” Skar said. “It’s high robotics, led lighting.”

And as Johannsen works through his second semester at CVTC, he is already thinking of what he’ll do next and where his expertise in machine tooling can take him.

“I don’t think it’s all I ever want to do but I think it’s going to open up my life and ready me for education in a way that I didn’t think it would,” Johannsen said. “I’m excited to where this will bring my life… I think I chose correctly.”

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