Community Support Allows NWTC to Grow

Where do you see yourself in 10 years and what kind of employees will you need to get there? This is the question Northeast Wisconsin Technical College (NWTC) posed to community employers before asking taxpayers to support a $66.5 million referendum last April.

According to Karen Smits, vice president of College Advancement at NWTC, “We talked to hundreds and hundreds of people in every county in northeast Wisconsin to make sure that the improvements we were asking taxpayers to fund were the right ones, ones the community wants and needs.”

The school held forums and invited members of local businesses to talk about trends and opportunities ahead and the educational programs needed to train future workers.

“If we know what skill sets they’re looking for, we know what technologies and programs we should be investing in. Our mission is two-fold: to help local economies grow and to make every student successful,” Smits said.

NWTCBy many measurements, NWTC appears to be meeting its mission. In 2014, it was one of the top 14 fastest-growing large two-year colleges in the nation. It was also one of only 16 colleges to receive the prestigious Dream Leader College designation for its commitment to student success. Four of its associate degree programs rank in the top one percent nationally and the list of instructors and students receiving national awards is long. It also ranked as one of the most efficient colleges in the Wisconsin Technical College System in terms of operational costs per student.

Recognition like this, along with responsiveness and sensitivity to local employers, has earned NWTC the respect of the communities it serves. Voters endorsed the spring referendum in high number. Smits describes that mandate as “great. We needed 50 percent plus one vote, but we got 59 percent. That’s as high as I’ve seen. I think people appreciate the value we bring to the community. We work hard to be good stewards of their trust.”

NWTC’s motto is “Start here. Go anywhere.” Smits said, “We meet incoming students where they’re at. If they don’t have a high school diploma, we help them work on that. If they’re returning to school and already have work experience, they may get credit for existing skills. We then put together a career plan that prepares them to get the job they’d like, start their own business or transfer to an accredited four-year Bachelor of Arts program.”

IMG_2566WEBFull-time students can expect to earn an Associate Degree in two years and a Technical Diploma in 1 – 2 years. Part-time students can earn an Associate Degree in 3 – 4 years. Ninety-five percent of those with an Associate Degree will find work in their field and 97 percent stay in Wisconsin. They can expect to earn, on average, $38,000 a year. If they choose to transfer to a four-year Bachelor of Arts program elsewhere, they may take up to 24 credits with them.

“We know that in order to support a family and make a living wage, students will need certification beyond high school,” Smits said. “We also know that businesses prefer ‘homegrown’ employees. To meet these goals, it’s important to have a campus in your backyard.”

The Sturgeon Bay campus works with more than 40 Door County businesses, from large manufacturing firms to dental offices and fire departments. Each of the Associate Degree programs offered at the Sturgeon Bay campus has a local advisory committee that meets twice a year.

“These committees help set our curriculum,” Smits said. “We want to talk directly to the people hiring our students. We also want to talk to the people not hiring our students so we can find out how to change that. Different locations have different needs.”

To that end, the Sturgeon Bay campus’ Diesel Technology program includes an agricultural component and its Registered Nursing program is designed with an older population in mind.

Another service NWTC provides to local businesses is specialized training. Bay Shipbuilding, for instance, uses NWTC to train its incoming welders. Smits sees this as a real benefit to local companies. “We provide the training so they don’t have to.” She notes that when a new company considers moving to a community or a current company considers expanding, they’ll often contact the technical college to assess capacity.

Bill Chaudoir, executive director of the Door County Economic Development Corporation, agrees. “We’re very fortunate to have NWTC here in Door County. Being on a peninsula means we’re challenged in some ways. The first question prospective employers ask is about the availability of a trained workforce. NWTC is an incredible asset for Sturgeon Bay, Northern Door and Washington Island.”

The lion’s share of NWTC’s referendum-approved funding, $51 million, will go to improvements at the Green Bay campus; $11 million is targeted for Marinette and $4 million will be spent in Sturgeon Bay. Improvements planned for the Sturgeon Bay campus include a reconfiguration of existing space; no additional square footage will be added.

According to Susan Baus, community education supervisor at the Sturgeon Bay campus, “This referendum allowed us to rethink our space. We’ve cobbled together some classrooms over the years, particularly in the nursing program. We’ll now be able to move that program and create a more suitable learning and teaching environment. We’ll also be ‘right-sizing’ other classrooms and designing them for shared use.”

In addition to the added space gained through better design, Baus explains that the new classrooms will look less traditional. Instead of seating in long rows with students facing the instructor at the front, the rooms will embody NWTC’s commitment to a team approach to learning. Workstations will be grouped in pods so students can collaborate. She adds, “As much as possible, we want the learning environment to mimic the future work environment.”

Another change planned is a more welcoming student lobby that will consolidate student support services in one central area. Smits explains that this is a strategic move. “We stress the coaching concept. It’s a model everyone in Green Bay is familiar with. Packer players are professional athletes but they still get coached. We want our students to know that that’s what smart people do – they ask for help. We want our support or coaching services to be very visible and accessible.”

The referendum will also allow NWTC to expand its welding program, a mainstay of the Sturgeon Bay campus, dedicate space for a much-used metallurgy and weld testing lab, and offer new programs in therapeutic massage, information technology and business.

Although a number of the programs offered in Sturgeon Bay are self-contained, (meaning a student is able to earn certification without traveling to other campuses), Baus estimates that 50 percent of students do at least some of their course work in Green Bay and that all students will benefit from the improvements being made to the Green Bay campus.

“We offer video conferencing with Green Bay instructors, so expanded programing there helps us here. Also, many of the Green Bay support staff spend at least part of their week interfacing directly with students in Sturgeon Bay,” Baus said.

NWTC currently hosts popular community programs like Learning in Retirement and Loaves and Fishes. Smits and Baus stressed that these programs will not be negatively impacted by the planned changes and may in fact benefit from them.

Construction is scheduled to begin on the Sturgeon Bay campus in February of 2017. The college is planning an Open House and looks forward to sharing its improved campus with the Door County community when work is completed in the spring of 2018.

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