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In a state that hit a historically low unemployment rate in Feb. 2018, Wisconsin’s Chippewa Valley region is hoping to tackle a potential workforce problem head-on – by bracing itself for the future.

Industries, especially manufacturing and construction, are growing by leaps and bounds. Chippewa County is the 9th fastest growing county among the state’s 72, a 2017 Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development (DWD) report said.

In 2017, the area hosted the state’s ninth largest economic development project of that year – a 1.1 million-square-foot, $69 million Mills Fleet Farm distribution center in Chippewa Falls.

In west central Wisconsin – specifically Chippewa, Eau Claire, Barron, Dunn, Clark, Pepin, Pierce, Polk and St. Croix counties – “construction and extraction” jobs are expected to grow 11 percent between 2014 and 2024, the DWD report said.

Jobs in “installation, maintenance and repair” are projected to grow by nine percent. “Transportation and material moving” jobs are expected to increase by eight percent.

Will the steady influx of Chippewa Valley jobs be easily filled? Some have doubts.

Only roughly 15 percent of Wisconsin communities are increasing their young adult populations and maintaining them, a Dec. 2017 University of Wisconsin-Madison-conducted population study said. For its part, the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation (WEDC) launched a marketing campaign in early 2018, attempting to lure Chicago-area young adults to Wisconsin.

To plug the gap before it widens, several groups are narrowing in on an elusive target: the Chippewa Valley’s students and the school districts they’re found in.

Specifically, an initiative aimed at connecting students with possible employers is steadily rolling out throughout the state. It will show students how to win apprenticeships, shadow careers and get coached by real employees, said a man intimately involved with the program: Steve Jahn, executive director of Momentum West, an economic organization serving 10 west central Wisconsin counties.

Preparing the new workforce

Aptly named Inspire Connections, the software is a collaboration between several unlikely bedfellows, Jahn said. Momentum West, the WEDC, the state Department of Public Instruction (DPI), county economic organizations, technical colleges and even the University of Wisconsin system are all stirring the pot.

The concept of Inspire Connections is simple. First, comply with state standards for career planning and introduce a student-facing software called Career Cruising in schools around the state. Students can enter their test scores, study habits, hobbies, likes and dislikes, creating a profile of themselves. The software will then match each student with careers that might make a good fit.

That first step is being rolled out in school districts across the state, including districts in Chippewa County. But as Jahn puts it, giving students hypothetical career suggestions is not enough. “The problem with that software is it stops short of solving a real problem we have right now, and that problem is business and industry being able to connect with middle and high school students, which is ultimately their future workforce.”

On to step two: Gather county economic organizations from across the Chippewa Valley region. Negotiate a contract with student-facing software Career Cruising, and create an employer-facing platform. Invite local companies to fill out profiles and go into detail about the workers they’re looking for.

Step three? Add a few bells and whistles, then connect both platforms – linking students to employers through a web portal that lets the two parties communicate directly, with the oversight of parents and teachers.

Students will be able to ask companies about the day-to-day of a job they’re curious about, and perhaps have their questions answered by their potential future boss. Ultimately, Jahn hopes apprenticeships, internships, part-time and full-time jobs will follow.

One of those bells and whistles – one that, during a phone interview, Jahn is audibly excited about – is “career coaches.”

On the platform, businesses can select current or retired employees as “coaches” to interact face-to-face with curious students.

“They can be anyone who clears a background check. An accountant, manager, office assistant, engineer, any type of occupation with that industry,” Jahn said.

Bypassing the traditional job interview and asking a real employee for their best job application tips is one of Inspire’s best concepts, Jahn said.

“(Inspire Connections) is a phenomenal tool for us … to really tap into the workforce we have here and hopefully turn the dial to keeping our young talent here, instead of them getting an education and leaving,” Jahn said.

It’s also the first time he’s seen this many state, regional, county and municipal organizations collaborate so closely on one initiative, he said.

Schools welcome new career tech

While Career Cruising is one of the newest additions to the Chippewa Falls Area Unified School District’s career preparation lineup, it’s not the first to join the party.

The district’s apprenticeship program has enjoyed success, said Career and Technical Education Coordinator Laura Bushendorf.

One senior in the youth apprenticeship program is making waves locally. After her apprenticeship, Chippewa Falls Senior High School senior Maggie Burgess became a licensed certified nursing assistant (CNA) and works roughly 25 hours per week at Dove Healthcare–Wissota Health and Regional Vent Center in Chippewa Falls. She plans to continue studying nursing locally after graduating, Burgess told the Chippewa Falls school board at a March 2018 meeting.

Bushendorf speaks highly of the youth apprenticeship program, calling it “one of the biggest pieces” of the district’s career preparation.

But Jahn hopes the Career Cruising platform – which went live in west central Wisconsin in September of 2017, he said – will help more students get connected with employers directly.

Many Chippewa Falls students began creating their profiles in middle school, Bushendorf said, and the district’s goal is to have a “majority” of high school student signed up in 2018.

Bushendorf doesn’t know if the software will be more effective than other tools. But since it’s being used statewide, Inspire will become universal – teachers will be able to learn the ins and outs of the program together, she suggested.

Bushendorf says local businesses – including Dove Healthcare – are already significantly impacting students’ chances of success.

“If we didn’t have that partnership with (Dove), we wouldn’t be able to have those CNA students there,” she said. “We are so fortunate to live in a community that really wants to help prepare kids for life after high school.”

A steady timeline

Educational agency CESA has agreed to interface with public school districts in Momentum West’s 10-county area to roll out the students’ side of the platform, Jahn said. Meanwhile, Momentum West is rounding up county economic organizations, chambers of commerce and technical colleges to get the word out to businesses.

Jahn hopes to have the students’ and employers’ platforms linked by the next school year, although the Chippewa Falls school district does not have an immediate timeline to connect the two platforms, Bushendorf said.

But currently, Momentum West is handing the reins of the project to a more local group: County economic development organizations in Chippewa, Dunn and Eau Claire counties will be taking over the initiative.

That doesn’t mean the project is going to get any smaller. “The DPI has signed a multi-year, up to eight-year commitment with the (Career Cruising) software company. Likewise, the regional organizations have mirrored that commitment. Basically, we’re looking at eight years of effort put into this software,” Jahn said. “It’s not going away anytime soon.”

Nearly 180 local businesses are already active on the Inspire Connections platform, with the majority in Chippewa, Dunn and Eau Claire counties. Just over 250 career coaches are also registered, and are waiting for the students’ platform to be linked.

Which industries are making the biggest showing on the platform so far? Jahn says businesses “run the gamut,” but said manufacturing is coming out on top so far.

Bushendorf agreed, saying manufacturing employees are most needed in the Chippewa Falls school district’s area.

“If I had to say one industry, definitely manufacturing. But we also can’t overlook the fact that it’s really manufacturing, healthcare and IT that we’re seeing as our area’s biggest needs,” she said.

Local businesses got their chance to weigh in at a Chippewa Falls Senior High School March meeting. Six representatives from five Chippewa Valley businesses fielded questions from teachers, and ultimately agreed: Exposing more students to the reality of working life will help them consider the right career.

“What I really suggest is people take more tours … see what jobs are out there,” said Kenny Scar, owner of Lake Hallie manufacturing company Vincent Tools, at the meeting.

Shirley Gutsch, human resources manager at Advanced Laser of Chippewa Falls agreed: “We will tour anyone who shows up at our door,” she said. “Kids have lot of opportunity, and we can help them with that.”

Both Bushendorf and Jahn credit local businesses with breathing life into the Inspire Connections platform.

“(The) bottom line, to me, is it’ll be successful largely due to the partners we have in the region,” Jahn said. “It’s that collaboration that’s really going to pay off and make this thing thrive.”


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