Obama addresses county's successful manufacturing program for schools

Todd Ponath
President Obama is welcomed by the audience at the General Electric Gas Engines facility Thursday in Waukesha. The president discussed how manufacturing programs in Waukesha County are a great example to follow for national initiatives.
Published on: 2/3/2014

President Barack Obama's speech at the General Electric Gas Engines facility last week in Waukesha centered on getting more people working.

How to do that, particularly with manufacturing jobs, he said, is that "we need to look at where are the jobs and take a job-driven approach to training."

From what Obama can see, Waukesha is already above the curve in this aspect.

"That's what you're doing here in Wisconsin," Obama said. "It's one of the reasons why, over the past four years, you've grown your manufacturing workforce by nearly half. So what you're doing at this plant, and across this region, can be a model for the country — which is why I've asked Congress to fund more reliably proven programs that connect more ready-to-work Americans with ready-to-be-filled jobs."

One area Obama highlighted while addressing the crowd of about 500, is creating "more apprenticeship opportunities" for young people.

"I'm going to call on American companies all across the country, particularly manufacturers, to set up more apprenticeship programs," he said. "We've got to start by figuring out which skills employers are looking for. Then engage the entire community. We've got to help workers learn the skills they need to do the job that exists. And then we've got to make sure we're following up, because companies are constantly shifting their needs."

But he said "part of the problem for a lot of young people is they just don't know what's out there. If you've never worked on a plant floor, you don't know what's involved, you don't know what it is. If you don't have a dad or a mom or an uncle or somebody who gives you some sense of that, you may not know how interesting the work is and how much you can advance."

The Waukesha County Business Alliance has been trying to show this to students for the last few years.

With manufacturing accounting for 20 percent of the county's jobs, the WCBA and leading area manufacturers formed the Waukesha County Manufacturing Alliance in 2010. The Manufacturing Alliance holds CEO listening sessions, programs and manufacturing tours for the public. But one program Suzanne Kelley, president of the WCBA, and Obama highlighted, is the Schools2Skills Program.

The program started three years ago after Kelley and Mary Baer, the WCBA's director of membership development, met with manufacturing companies.

"They all brought up the same issue," Kelley said. "Where are we going to find our workers in the future? They had openings right then and they were projecting out and were concerned about their talent pipeline and we decided that we wanted to do something about it."

Kelley, who was at the GE facility last week, said the program takes students from Waukesha County schools on a daylong tour of three manufacturing plants as well as engineering and technology facilities at WCTC.

"They get to see things that are made in Waukesha County, they get to learn about salaries and career paths, they get to see the kind of training needed," Kelley said. "They get to have one-on-one conversations not only with the people on the factory floor but with the CEOs, themselves."

Kelley said Schools2Skills is one of the alliance's "signature programs," and she also gives many presentations to school groups "about manufacturing being alive and well and what kind of jobs are available in manufacturing."

Every school district in the county has participated in the program at least twice and the WCBA is in the third year of the program, Kelley said. She added the program has reached more than 800 students.

"A big part of addressing the skills gap problem is making the business to education connections and making those partnerships happen," Kelley said. "That is really the first step to solving the issue in the long term."

Obama said he has ways to fix this issue.

During his speech at GE, Obama said Vice President Joe Biden will lead an across-the-board review of all of America's federal job training programs.

"Let's find what programs are working best and let's duplicate them and expand them," Obama said.

As a result, he said his office will set up a national competition that will challenge community colleges to partner with local employers and national industries to design job-driven training programs.

Obama said there will be at least one winner from every state and the federal government will invest nearly $500 million in the partnerships that show the most potential.

"We're putting some real money behind this," Obama said.

Brian White, president of GE, told Obama that "if we're going to have a manufacturing base in this country, we've got to find a way to have manufacturing employees."

That's why Harland Altreuter, a longtime employee, said finding these qualified workers starts with the companies starting training programs, just as GE has done.

"The good news is folks across Wisconsin have set out to do just that," Obama said. "This plant is a great example of that. We're here because you're doing some really good stuff that everybody else needs to pay attention to."