Randy Redetzke admits he has a dream job. As art director for Human Head Studios in Madison, he develops the characters and environments for videogames like Prey and Prey 2 for the Xbox, working with concept artists to guide the overall vision. His career in videogame animation began more than a decade ago at Madison College.
"I started in commercial art and then moved into the animation program," he says. "I was one of the first two students in the program."
Redetzke interned at Human Head Studios and was hired by the company after graduating. Now, he sits on an advisory board for the Animation and Concept Development Department at Madison College, giving input on curriculum, industry trends and employment.
"I have tried to help them with the ever-changing industry," he says. "They've been very receptive to listening to our needs, what we do now and how my job has changed in the last 10 years."
Redetzke believes this kind of symbiotic relationship between Madison College and Human Head Studios fits right in with Gov. Scott Walker's new vision for higher education funding. During a speech last month at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif., Walker announced plans for a new accountability system for Wisconsin's colleges and universities.
Walker wants to tie higher education funding to performance, measured both in graduation rates and success in connecting students with jobs in industries where there is a skills gap. He insists that jobs are available for workers in Wisconsin, but that those jobs are going unfilled because there aren't enough skilled graduates to meet the demand. Details of the new funding plan will likely be unveiled in February as part of Walker's biennial budget.
Like all technical colleges, Madison College makes training skilled workers and meeting the needs of area employers a priority, and officials there say they're essentially already doing what the governor is proposing.
"I think for 100 years we have been very good, and actually quite nimble for a large organization, at evolving to meet the changing look of the community and the employers," says Turina Bakken, Madison College's associate vice president of learner success.
The school achieves that goal by bringing employers like Human Head into the fold and giving them an active role in planning curriculum. Every one of Madison College's 140 occupational programs has an advisory board that's made up of industry professionals who often hire graduates.
Redetzke says he and his colleagues connect with potential hires by regularly attending student portfolio shows at Madison College each winter and spring. They also contact teachers directly.
"We reach out to the instructors and say, 'Hey, got some students who are finishing up or showing some potential?'"
And that's just the way it's supposed to work, according to Jennifer Bakke, director of business and industry services at Madison College.
"It's a kind of give and take," she says. "We have some very long-term relationships with businesses throughout the whole district."
Madison College also leverages its connection to industries through trade associations.
"We'll work with the Hospitality Trade Association, or the American Bar Association, or Meeting Planners International," Bakken says. "We work extensively with the insurance industry primarily through the Commissioner's Office. It's a way for us to be in dialogue with industry in a really efficient way."
Despite such work at Madison College and Wisconsin's other technical colleges, there has been more and more talk of a growing skills gap. According to a recent study by the business association Competitive Wisconsin Inc., three major industries in the state are experiencing critical shortages of skilled workers: manufacturing, health care and finance-related industries. The study points out that while a quarter million Wisconsinites are out of work, some 30,000 jobs posted on the Department of Workforce Development website remain unfilled. Some factory work has left the state, but many of the jobs that remain in manufacturing are for highly skilled labor.
"We've heard [that] from businesses, and we've certainly heard from the state, Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce and Wisconsin Manufacturing Extension Partnership," Bakke admits. "It's very true."
The need to plug these holes is why Walker says he wants to tie funding for the state's colleges and universities to results. But the skills gap is looming at a time when the state's colleges and universities are facing unprecedented budget pressure. Since 2010, Madison College has seen its per-student funding drop by more than 22%, or $3.5 million. The school estimates a budget gap for the 2012-13 year of $5.3 million, due to levy limits and the loss of state aid.
"We're doing the best we can under the constraints we're working under," says Bakke.
Bakke also wonders how it will be determined which industries get targeted for skills development. "Who's feeding the funding choices?"
Madison College officials caution that the skills gap is an extremely complex issue stemming from a wide variety of factors, including the move away from technical training in high schools and changing demographics in the workforce.
"We don't have as many young people coming in, and we have the longtime baby boomers retiring," Bakke explains. "You get both a gap in preparing for the jobs and a gap in the total numbers coming into it."
Moreover, getting young students interested in a job in manufacturing can be a challenge.
"There's a whole generation of kids whose parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles were laid off from those industries," says Bakke. "These kids are going home and their parents are saying, 'You're not going into manufacturing. Look at your Uncle Burt!'"
Some labor economists argue that there is not a skills gap at all, but a problem of low wages. Under the basic principle of supply and demand, a shortage of skilled workers should push wages up. But, as Adam Davidson recently pointed out in The New York Times, "the number of skilled jobs has fallen and so have their wages," according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Both Bakke and Bakken hope that Gov. Walker takes these realities into account as he develops his funding plan. They'd also like him to recognize that education is about more than teaching a specialized skill - it's about teaching students how to think.
And that, says Bakken, is what employers want. She says employers tell school officials they are looking for workers who have good communication skills, know how to work as a team, and are adaptable.
"That's something that takes a lot of time. That's why this 'address the skills gap' is a really systemic issue," Bakken says.
Bakken is also wary of reconfiguring operations to target one or two industries. "I think this element of student choice is sometimes not a part of this conversation," she says. "We're talking about human beings and transformation. It's not like people come into our doors, we do something to them, and they're job-ready and available on a line for people to pick. That's just not how it works."