Tech Schools: The New Path to Career Success?

In a fast-moving job market, tech schools are playing a new role, helping to bridge the skills gap.

Adrielle Szerbat had a solid Plan B. She just didn’t know what Plan A was.

As a ninth-grader, she had no idea what she wanted to do with her life. Her father was a railroad mechanic, her mother a part-time school crossing guard. An older sister had found work after high school as a veterinarian’s receptionist. But when Szerbat looked at her own future, a hazy fill-in-the-blank stared back.

“I figured, I’ll get a part-time job and that will be good enough,” she reminisces. “If I don’t find anything, I’ll be a pharmacy technician. My cousin was a pharmacy tech. It was a pretty good salary, and I’d be trained for free.”

Yet as specific as that prospect was, it rated no better than second to an empty slate. Then came a weeklong culinary summer camp at Milwaukee Area Technical College.

Adrielle Szerbat works as a professional bakery sous-chef, thanks to skills she acquired at Milwaukee Area Technical College starting when she was in high school.
Adrielle Szerbat works as a professional bakery sous-chef, thanks to skills she acquired at Milwaukee Area Technical College starting when she was in high school; photo by James Stukenberg

By the end of that week, Szerbat had found her career. That fall – her senior year at Greenfield High School – she enrolled in MATC and spent half of nearly every school day there. By the time she got her high school diploma in the spring, she had also completed a semester of college coursework.

Now 19, Szerbat works as a professional bakery sous-chef while wrapping up her coursework at MATC. Without the college and her instructors, she says, “there’s probably no way I’d be where I am.”


1  Skilled Trades


Sales Representatives

Production Operators/Machine Operators

Secretaries, PAs, Receptionists, Administrative Assistants and Office Support Staff

6 Engineers

Management/Executive (Management/Corporate)

8 Accounting and Finance Staff

9 Drivers

10 IT Personnel*

*ManPower Group, “2016/2017 Talent Shortage Survey”

With technology evolving at warp speed, tech schools have stepped in to perform triage on the gaping skills gap. Meanwhile, workforce experts are rethinking the conventional wisdom that a four-year college degree is an automatic ticket to better pay.

After decades of operating largely out of the spotlight, MATC and the rest of Wisconsin’s 16 technical colleges are gaining new and favorable attention. Founded to equip earlier generations with skills in construction, manufacturing and other blue-collar trades, they’ve continued that mission while expanding their role to train people for “new collar” jobs – the current term for middle-skill positions.

“We’ve had rhetoric for a very long time about the million-dollar wage premium associated with a four-year degree,” says Diane Jones, an assistant secretary of education under President George W. Bush and now senior fellow at the Urban Institute in Washington, D.C., where she studies expanding postsecondary education and training opportunities. The first decade of this century punctured that assumption as underemployed college graduates who weren’t at the top of their class found that the laws of supply and demand applied to them as much as anyone else.

At the same time, a whole array of jobs have gone begging. Some “new collar” jobs simply never existed; others are in fields that in the past needed little more than a high school diploma. These new and evolved positions require credentials that demonstrate sophisticated yet practical skill sets in fields like math and computers: jobs such as manufacturing engineering technicians or increasingly specialized health-care paraprofessionals who work alongside doctors and nurses.

“The construction skilled trades – electricians, plumbers – they have done a really fantastic job of not losing sight” of how important it is to train new generations, says Jones. “We have a lot to learn from them. There’s a much wider variety of occupations that can be well served with training [like that for] skilled trades.”

For MATC President Vicki Martin, it’s about time people noticed. “We keep saying,” she says wryly, “we’re tired of being the best-kept secret.”

Public technical schools geared to specific career skills have their roots right here in Wisconsin. The nation’s first public school focused directly on job training was the Racine Continuation School, founded in 1911, where 325 students in the inaugural class learned trades that included cabinet making and cooking, dressmaking and drafting. The story is told in the 2011 history of the school’s latter-day incarnation: Gateway Technical College, operating in Racine, Kenosha and Walworth counties.

The school sprang from a 1911 Wisconsin law mandating the creation of such continuation schools  for job training all across the state. The precursor to Milwaukee Area Technical College was founded in 1912. Today, with nearly 36,000 students, 90 percent of them part-time, MATC is one of the largest of the Wisconsin Technical College System’s 16 member schools – the largest if you count fulltime equivalent students. At campuses in Oak Creek, West Allis and Mequon in addition to Downtown Milwaukee, the college offers 82 two-year associate degree programs, along with 80 one-year technical diplomas, 38 one-semester certificate programs and 24 apprenticeship options combining classroom and on-the-job training over five years.

“This system has always played a critical role in terms of job training,” says Mike Rosen, recently retired economics professor at MATC and ex-president of the union representing faculty members. “And it plays a crucial role in our economy. … If you want to improve your job skills, this is the system for you.”

Cutting-edge course offerings include mechatronics (the fusion of mechanical operation with electronic and computer-based technology) and cybersecurity – as relevant as the last time your debit card got hacked. Yes, there are still programs in tech school staples such as welding and sheetmetal work, but also in everything from accounting and nursing to surgical technology, web design, TV production and computer simulation and gaming.

At a time when some graduates with bachelor’s degrees work as baristas, the job placement rates at tech schools are impressive – in several MATC majors they are 100 percent – including in traditional trades (refrigeration, air conditioning and heating service technician is one of several), but also in many health care occupations, IT-related programs, and a few less traditional ones as well, such as landscape horticulture.

“All of our programs in the technical college system are determined by employer demand,” says Kaylen Betzig, president of Waukesha County Technical College. “If we can’t demonstrate a need based on employers, the state will not let us offer that program.”

Technical colleges have long worked with the industries whose workers they train, but the aforementioned skills gap has given these relationships a new significance. According to Peter Coffaro, chief program officer of Employ Milwaukee Workforce Development, for many employers in the Milwaukee area, the need is dire. “Just a quick snapshot look, there are about 2,200 information technology positions posted today that are going unfilled. There’s a lot of demand for … information support services, information computer systems analyst operations and computer user support specialists. Programming and software development is another major category. Just in that category alone, there are about 1,300 postings,” says Coffaro.

Employers look to the schools to provide short-term, narrowly focused training – specialty welding programs for metalworking companies, for instance. The schools have also responded to shifting employer priorities – such as when, earlier this year, the printer Quad/Graphics (the owner of this magazine) decided to broaden its financial support for WCTC from the company’s mainstay, printing, to manufacturing engineering technology.

“Manufacturing today is not what kids’ parents remember it to be, with old dirty floors and all of that,” says Joel Quadracci, CEO of Quad/Graphics. “Now we need people to operate high-tech equipment versus manual labor.” Manufacturing and trades offer good pay and benefits – and ensuring there are workers to fill those jobs is critical to the region’s economic future. “If we don’t fix the skills gap or at least come up with some solutions to it, you’re going to limit the ability of the economy to move forward as robustly as it can,” he adds.

Another bonus: These skills are more transferable than many may realize. Take the company’s printing presses: “We’re not dealing with the craft aspect like we sued to. We’re dealing with technology,” he says. “So getting the tech skills, whether it’s operating a printing press or some other piece of equipment in another industry, some of those skill sets are going to be the same.”

Grafton-based Kapco and its “Kapco University” training facility partner with both MATC and Moraine Park Technical College in West Bend, says Jenny Wenger, Kapco’s senior director for human resources, talent acquisition and organizational development.

Amazon is one of many companies that have turned to technical schools to help train employees
Amazon is one of many companies that have turned to technical schools to help train employees; Photo courtesy of Amazon

Kapco employees have provided résumé coaching and feedback to welding students, and the firm has recruited some certificate graduates from MATC’s Mequon campus. It also provides on-the-job training for welding youth apprentices – high school students enrolled in one- or two-year programs through Moraine Park, who get paid while learning on the job.

At least as important as technical skills, Wenger observes, is the need for employees trained in so-called soft skills – and she sees those skills in evidence among the graduates who come to work for the company from MATC. “I believe their teachers are really driving home being ready for work,” she says. “That doesn’t just mean having the skill – it’s attitude, ethics that they are teaching.”

When Amazon opened a warehouse in Kenosha County, the online retail behemoth turned to Gateway Technical College to host recruiting fairs. Another manufacturer engaged Gateway to provide introductory electronics training to new hires. More recently, Gateway faculty began teaching in a classroom on Amazon’s premises where employees can earn credits toward an associate’s degree.

There is a practical dimension to these closer partnerships: “Schools cannot keep up to pace with the new equipment in advanced manufacturing,” says the Urban Institute’s Diane Jones – so companies step in to help ensure students can learn up-to-date technologies.

“We’ve always been responsive to the changing needs of the community,” says Gateway President Bryan Albrecht, “but it’s happening at such a fast pace now.”

Dual-enrollment programs, like the one that baker Adrielle Szerbat took part in, are also accelerating. At MATC alone, the number of dual-enrollment students nearly doubled from 1,107 in 2014 to 2,018 in 2016. MATC has put some introductory classes in welding, machine-tool operation, pre-engineering and information technology inside the Milwaukee Public Schools’ Bradley Tech High School, where students are taught by a mix of Bradley Tech teachers and MATC faculty. “They’ll earn college credit while they earn their high school diploma,” says MATC President Martin.

Similar opportunities are found at all of the technical colleges; they include “articulation agreements” that connect high school classes with subsequent technical college classes. By whatever name, they’re much more widespread and systematic than the occasional precocious high schooler who enrolls in an individual class at a four-year college.

Gateway dispatches career coaches to high schools in its three-county district and has some 3,500 students earning college-level credit through classes taught by Gateway and high school teachers. At WCTC, which operates a Dual Enrollment Academy, this past spring 18-year-old Gabrielle Kluth became the college’s first student to graduate simultaneously with a high school diploma (from the Waukesha School District’s online eAchieve Academy) and an associate degree from the college.

This kind of thing is “part of a sequence of courses to lead to something,” says Chris Daniels, the work-based learning coordinator at South Milwaukee School District, where joint high school/MATC programs go back at least 17 years. “The beauty of that is students can try college-level coursework that leads to certain careers.”

Photo by Getty Images

And more such arrangements seem likely. Starting this fall, a 2015 state law requires every Wisconsin public school to provide much more intensive academic and career planning for all students starting as early as sixth grade. High schools already wrap job training and career planning more tightly than ever into their curricula.

“Traditionally technical colleges and other workplace certification programs have operated in isolation from our high schools,” says Brown Deer schools Superintendent Deb Kerr. Now, “there’s been more focus on lots of different opportunities where you create a pathway for a student” to explore career alternatives. “It’s just been a great opportunity for high schools and technical colleges to come together to get into workforce development.”

With the price tag of a four-year degree skyrocketing, technical colleges are reaching out to potential students with a burgeoning number of transfer programs that allow students to get their first two years of college at a lower cost. For students taking part in one of the four-year college transfer programs at MATC, tuition ranges from $455 for a single three-credit class to just over $3,900 for a full load. Agreements enabling associate-degree graduates to transfer into four-year schools, typically as juniors, were novel a decade ago. Today, MATC lists nearly 400 such transfer options, and its counterparts are signing them as well.

In the fall of 2015, MATC became the first Wisconsin college to join America’s College Promise, a national campaign to make the first two years of community college, including technical colleges, free for eligible low-income students. MATC’s Promise program is funded by $1 million in donations from individuals and foundations; it kicks in after other forms of grant-based financial aid have been tapped.

With the program’s launch, “we are attracting a younger population directly out of high school,” says MATC’s Vicki Martin. While the average age of students ranges from the high 20s at WCTC to 30 at Gateway and MATC, fall 2016 enrollment of those students right out of high school hit 1,686 – nearly twice the previous year’s 890. And nearly 1,200 received some form of assistance, without it, she says, “I’m sure a lot of students thought they could not afford to go to college.”

This fall, several other technical colleges will implement Promise programs of their own, including Gateway and Madison Area Technical College. And MATC is looking ahead to when it might extend the Promise concept to older students returning from the workforce.

Programs like Promise point to another role that technical colleges have played: equipped a more diverse population for the workforce. Thirty percent of MATC enrollment is African-American, and 18 percent is Hispanic, while 43 percent is white. More than half, 54 percent, are women. To further rewrite age-old scripts about who does what in the workplace, though, the college makes direct outreach. Hence camps like robotics for girls and a parallel health careers camp for boys, and MATC’s coordinator for non-traditional occupations, Nutan Amrute, whose duties include overseeing both of those programs.

“We need more men in health care and we need more women in STEM,” says Amrute, using the education buzzword for science, technology engineering and mathematics. “Career doesn’t have a gender – you can do whatever you want and you like.”

46% of American employers report difficulty fulfilling jobs due to lack of available talent*

*ManPower Group, “2016/2017 Talent Shortage Survey”

7.3 million fewer jobs are available today than there were in 1989 if your highest educational attainment is a high school diploma.*

*Georgetown University Center for Education and the Workforce, “America’s Divided Recovery,” June 30, 2016.

When Adrielle Szerbat signed up for her first cooking class at Greenfield High in ninth grade, it was simply a lark. “I love food,” she says. “I just thought of it as, you learn about making food and then you get to eat the food.”

She took two more such classes in her junior year, and at one an outside speaker showed a video about careers in cooking. It was Szerbat’s first inkling that she might have found something to fill in that blank space in her future.

That summer came the week-long high school baking camp at MATC. She was awed by the clean, modern commercial kitchen – “the lab” everyone calls it; it is a classroom, after all – where the hands-on teaching takes place. “It was such a nice lab in such an old building. It’s like a little heaven!” she says.

By the end of the week, she knew that she and pastry went together like frosting and sprinkles: “I’m like, this is what I’m going to do for sure.”

MATC’s Youth Options program enabled her to spend 12th grade on the Downtown Milwaukee campus every morning before heading back to Greenfield High in the afternoons.

Szerbat credits instructors with pushing her to hone her skills and to expand her repertoire of techniques – and doing it all with unceasing support. “Even when I was still in high school I never felt like an outcast or out of place,” she says.

They also made connections that got her on the first rung of her career ladder. A year ago, she signed on as a bakery sous-chef for SURG Restaurant Group in Milwaukee, where she plans to stay after getting her associate degree in December. She’s already had the opportunity to create desserts – including a gluten-free opera cake.

In her first fall semester, still in high school, Szerbat entered the bakery program’s gingerbread house competition with a replica of the balloon- borne abode from Pixar’s hit cartoon Up. A picture on Instagram brought a call from People magazine, which posted an article and picture on its website. A cameo on ABC’s “Good Morning America” followed and the story spread to the social media aggregator Mashable and to websites as far away as Indonesia.

Although a social media smash, the adorable Up house didn’t make the top cut in the contest. Last winter, she decided on an encore: a fanciful recreation of an outdoor Paris cafe scene. “I just love Paris and France, especially since they’re so connected with the world of pastry,” says Szerbat, who ponders possibly continuing her education someday at Chicago’s French Pastry School.

And the Paris cafe gingerbread house? It won first prize. ◆

Erik Gunn profiled Common Council President Ashanti Hamilton in April

Tune in WUWM’s (FM 89.7) “Lake Effect” Aug. 24 at 10 a.m. to hear more about the story.

‘Another Way Up’ appears in the August 2017 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

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Milwaukee Magazine Contributing Editor Erik Gunn has written for the magazine since 1995. He started covering the media in 2006, writing the award-winning column Pressroom and now its online successor, Pressroom Buzz. Check back regularly for the latest news and commentary of the workings of the news business in Milwaukee and Wisconsin.