LaMoine Dohms and Bill Rybak are shown at Wissota Tool in Chippewa Falls with a CNC grinder operated by graduates of CVTC.
Higher education is sometimes disparaged as an ivory tower, an ethereal place removed from the nitty-gritty of daily life. That’s not the picture one gets at Chippewa Valley Technical College, which is a terra firma tower, rooted in the ever-evolving realities of the Chippewa Valley’s economy.
CVTC doesn’t just want to synchronize with the Valley’s economic needs. It seeks to anticipate the coming needs of area enterprises and to graduate students who’ll meet those needs. How? Its advisory councils — comprised of CVTC staff, students and practicing professionals from the Valley’s various economic sectors — give those representatives of local businesses a say in curricula and allow the college’s staff to assay their curricula to meet the current and coming needs of the Valley.
Graduating students with the skill sets needed by area businesses plugs the brain drain. It also justifies the time and expense of a college education, since CVTC’s grads move into high-paying positions.
“We don’t want to graduate 100 students when there are only 30 positions. That doesn’t serve our mission, which is to provide applied education that supports the workforce needs of our region,” said Roger Stanford, CVTC’s vice president of instruction. “That’s the core of our mission. The other parts are to improve the lives of our students and add value to our community. We do that through employment and developing wealth via the economic impact.”
He said that 89 percent of CVTC’s graduates stay in this region. That is the highest percentage of any school in the state, and it just sent another 400 graduates out into the ranks.
“A four-year university might suffer brain drain, but our mission is tied to local needs, so our students stay locally. This is a passion of our board, which enacts advisory councils. That’s how we stay connected,” he said.
“It also means we have support from the very top of our organization. We must be relevant to the local industries we serve. We want to produce the workers that companies need. We do not want to produce more workers than companies need. We want to lead our graduates into employment. We’ve been doing this for a hundred years and it’s how we roll.”
LaMoine Dohms, the plant manager at Wissota Tool who also serves on the Machine Tool Program Advisory Council, agrees.
“It is definitely beneficial to the program and students to have input from the manufacturers that will eventually employ these students. This results in students leaving CVTC much more prepared for manufacturing in the real world. These students leave the program making very good wages and benefits, which are spent in our region, boosting our local economy,” he said.
Dohms also tenders his time because his voice is respected.
“I feel we all stay on because we all believe in what we are trying to accomplish. Our voices are heard. The instructors give updates on what is taking place at the school. They use our recommendations in their curriculum and schedule planning, which is very important for everyone’s success. Honestly, I would not be on the council if I felt our voice was not heard.”
instruction and donation
Kenny Skar, the manager at Vincent Tool, also serves on the council, along with some of his competitors. So how do managers competing to hire the same grads collaborate?
“The hands-on education the students get is extremely valuable for the businesses that hire them. We all are working on the common goal for the school to create a hirable student, even though we are all competitors in industry and are looking to hire the best students out there,” he said. “We know working together is way better on this goal.”
Providing the technical college grads with good pay, solid benefits and early entries into such employment is also better for the Chippewa Valley. And it certainly has benefited Vincent Tool. Eleven of its 13 machinists came through CVTC’s machine tool program, and that includes Skar. New hires start between $36,000-$60,000, he said, with full benefits.
And Vincent Tool isn’t done. The Chippewa Falls manufacturer is hiring again, and picked two candidates from the school’s part-time student base to begin their machining careers at Vincent.
“Most students start with us part-time in their second semester and are offered a full-time career at time of graduation,” said Skar, pointing out that it helps students with their debt load and gives them experience in the workplace. The business also benefits by seeing how the student works and what their talent level is before deciding whether to hire them full-time. “We feel from our track record this is a win-win for both the student and our business.”
Another way CVTC and industry work together is collaboration on hiring instructors.
“The school recently reached out to industry for some help in hiring (with) the school’s two current openings for machine tool instructors. I don’t see that often in other places,” Skar said.
There’s also the ongoing upgrading of curriculum and technology, sometimes through donation.
“We saw the need to speed up production with coolant through drilling and that the students needed to be aware of this technology, and CVTC has now added a new machine in the last few months with this feature. We donate cutting tools to the program.”
Matt Guse, co-owner and president of M.R.S. Machining of Augusta, also serves on the CVTC Machine Tool Program Advisory Council. He’s been working long enough to understand the college’s staff is savvy.
“I graduated from CVTC in ‘86. One of the instructors told me that machinists would be coming to work with a briefcase and sitting in a chair. I couldn’t see it at the time. I thought my greasy hands would be on the machining handles forever,” he said.
“I would have never dreamt of what we have today. It looks like a hospital. The computers do all the work. You input the data and come to work with a briefcase instead of an apron and a greasy, grimy shirt. So, I listen to the instructors at CVTC today. They’re an invaluable resource.”
And Guse is well-traveled enough to appreciate the rarity of this invaluable resource.
“I travel all over America and there are states that don’t have programs like we do. I tell them about our graduates and they don’t believe that we have a school that’s graduating 60 people per two-year class.”
And he keeps his business in the Chippewa Valley because of the Valley’s richest resource: its people.
“Years ago, Wisconsin was a farming culture. That’s still there, of course, and it gives us a different work ethic. Industry is drawn here because we’re so productive. We can do twice as much with one person. We’re staying here because of that work ethic,” Guse said.
“My employees are hard workers, and inventive, too. Farmers say that when the sun shines, you have to make hay. My employees are still that way. That mentality is key to our success. Of course, our partnership with CVTC is key, too. CVTC and the board is open-minded and always willing to try new things.”
Demographic challenges and opportunities
Ever-evolving will be ever more important given the demographics of the workforce.
“The real problem they have is looking at shop floors and seeing so many nearing retirements. They need more graduates. They’re telling us of their desperate need for more graduates,” CVTC’s Stanford said.
Guse would like more women to fill those slots.
“I wish they could send us more women,” he said. “The women I have hired have been great. They have great patience in problem solving and they’re meticulous. They’ve been great successes.”
Marketing Advisory Council
Of course, machining isn’t the only sector with curricular input. For example, CVTC’s Marketing Advisory Council follows the same template, tapping into local talent to tailor its marketing curriculum to local needs. Renee Bonjour, director of development and marketing at Group Health Cooperative of Eau Claire, has served on this council for the past year.
“During our meetings, we review the curriculum offered at the tech for students selecting the marketing program. This review by marketing professionals in the local community helps provide a real-world perspective on whether the programs are equipping students with the skills they need to transition from school to career,” Bonjour said.
Michelle Harris, assistant vice president and marketing officer at Charter Bank, also serves on the council.
“I enjoy being able to brainstorm with the teachers, getting a sense of what’s in their classes, and having them ask, ‘What do you use on your job on a daily basis? If you were to hire an assistant, what are you looking for? What are the hard skills we need to teach them?’ That’s savvy on their part,” she said. “It’s great to know that they’re adjusting their curriculum to make sure their graduates are workforce-ready.”
Harris also appreciates the variety of expertise of those who serve with her on the council. She cites the range of marketing personalities and backgrounds on the committee, from print to social media to communications to marketing plans. “We can be more specific in our niche areas,” Harris said. “They don’t rely upon a handful of people to know a little bit about everything. The experts can dive much more in-depth.”
The Marketing Advisory Council has supported an expansion of marketing curriculum. Laurie Boettcher, a digital marketing instructor, internship coordinator and DECA advisor at CVTC, has spearheaded this expansion. Boettcher saw the power of social media when she was working for the Wisconsin DOT and the Minneapolis I-35 bridge collapsed. She immersed herself in social media, becoming a consultant before joining CVTC.
“There was just one social media class, a two-credit class that met once a week for two hours,” Boettcher said. “I laughed and said, ‘Oh, goodness, what do you expect me to do in two hours?’ The advisory council was just for the marketing communications program, so I went to my department and said, ‘I would love to do a social media and mobile marketing program.’”
The Marketing Advisory Council grew to accommodate the changing curriculum.
“We needed more experts in social media and brought in 10 experts in social media, marketing and mobile marketing efforts. They’re highly regarded professionals with great credibility,” Boettcher said.
The fruit of this program is plugging social media students into area businesses needing that know-how. The four-semester program over two years includes general courses the first semester, before diving into social media strategy, looking at businesses that use social media effectively and those who employ it incorrectly.
“The third semester includes a course called Social Media Campaign. They might be assigned a business that interests them and throughout the semester they manage a campaign for that fictitious business, from Pinterest to Facebook,” Boettcher said.
“The fourth semester is Advanced Social Media Campaign, which is no longer fictitious. They’re paired with a local business and run their campaign for 6-8 weeks. We also get into ethics and copyright. They do their analytics and prove the effectiveness. They then train the local businesses to continue the campaign, creating cheat sheets to facilitate that. The small businesses respond to this because they wear a lot of hats and easing the campaign is a gift.
Giving in kind
Whether it’s tweaking established curriculum or developing new curriculum, CVTC maximizes the moxie of local professionals through its advisory councils. And as those professionals donate tools and time, the technical college reciprocates their generosity, plugging its students and graduates into area businesses, which enriches the terra firma of the Valley. It is a towering collaboration.