Dr. Morna Foy: How the WTCS is Strengthening Wisconsin’s Economy

An interview with Matt Kirchner and Dr. Morna Foy, President of the Wisconsin Technical College System

Matt Kirchner 

Dr. Morna Foy, our guest on The TechEd Podcast. Morna is the President of the Wisconsin Technical College System. Morna, it’s such a pleasure to have you with us today. Thank you so much for joining us.

Morna Foy 

Thank you, Matt. It is a pleasure to be here as always.

How Do You Build Alignment Between 16 Independent Colleges?

Matt Kirchner 

We’re looking forward to the discussion. I want to start out right out of the blocks with this question. Because I tell people, you have a really, really interesting job. One of, you know, one of the tests of a true leader is to lead when you don’t necessarily have 100% of the authority to bring 16 independent technical colleges with you by commanding or demanding that they do things. And so it’s really a sign of your leadership that you’re able to lead the system in the way that you are.

But our 16 independent technical college systems here in the state, they’re coordinated and overseen by the WTCS – the Wisconsin Technical College System. As the President, how do you create balance between building alignment between the colleges and also providing space so that every college can make its own strategic decisions and do what’s right in their particular district?

Morna Foy 

It’s a collaborative process. And that is, you know, I really appreciate first of all the way you described, my job as interesting. It’s very political of you, and very actually correct. It’s incredibly interesting; I get to work with some amazing leaders, both at the college level and in their board governance level. And they are an eclectic mix; you’ve got that right. They reflect the communities in which they operate. And they, you know, they reflect their own life experiences that they bring, which is quite diverse.

So it’s an exciting job. And it is one where it relies a lot on mutual respect, shared vision, mission, values, and that we have the same goal in mind, which is that we need to serve the state’s employers, providing them the properly trained workforce. But we also need to serve Wisconsinites. Because we are about creating opportunities. We are about advancing people’s lives. I think even if there’s 16 organizations or distinct independent colleges, when they are all moving in the same direction with those same shared vision, mission, goals, it’s just about talking and working together.

Matt Kirchner 

And sharing that mission is so very important. And we know certainly that the colleges in the state of Wisconsin, share in so many different ways a shared mission. You mentioned the importance of employers. You mentioned certainly the importance of the people of Wisconsin whom you serve. So very, very important. Credit to you, Morna, for striking that balance in such a such a creative and effective way.

Kind of building on that topic, we recently interviewed one of your contemporaries, Dr. Sue Ellspermann, President of the Ivy Tech system in Indiana. Some will recognize her name as the former Lieutenant Governor of the state of Indiana during in the term of Mike Pence, when he was the Governor of the state of Indiana. She has a position very similar to the one that you have here in the state of Wisconsin. In the conversation we had with Dr. Ellspermann, one of the key topics we talked about was dual credit for high school students and credit transfer students coming from other educational institutions into – in her case – Ivy Tech and your case the WTCS.

Now Dr. Ellspermann operates a system where all of the technical colleges are fully aligned. And as we just explored with you, you don’t necessarily have that situation in Wisconsin. Give us some examples, if you would, though, where in spite of that you’ve created dual credit and credit transfer opportunities for students. 

Morna Foy 

I’m happy to. You know, I know Sue, and she’s been doing a terrific job in Indiana. We serve on a couple of organizations that work together to try to advance the role that two-year colleges can play. So I have the utmost respect for Ivy Tech and for Sue’s leadership of that organization.

But you know, it’s true, the WTCS is very different. And we are not top-down, if you will, directed system. But I wouldn’t say that we’re not aligned. Because I think we are fully aligned around that shared mission, that shared vision, those shared goals that we just talked about. And that alignment happens through lots of collaboration which can be really challenging. You know, it takes a lot of conversation. It also takes commitment from myself from the college boards, the college presidents and our stakeholders, our partners. It takes respect, equal relationships, it really comes down to having faith in each other.

And truthfully, it would be sometimes it would be a lot easier for me to just issue an edict and say, “This is the way we’re going to do it, folks.” But I have learned through a lot of trial and error, that sustained progress and sustained decisions only happen when everybody comes together and is a part of that conversation.

Dual enrollment is a classic example of how collaboration works in the technical college system and how we rely on our alignment through vision, mission and goals to get something done, use them, as you mentioned, dual enrollment as an example. You know, in a time of rapid change in the economy, skilled workforce shortages, rising costs of higher ed, technical colleges heard from parents, they heard from students, they heard from K-12 partners, they heard from employer partners, that we needed to do more to create more options for students to start their post-secondary work sooner and at less expense.

So in response, the colleges and the system work together to accelerate our career pathways. That’s breaking down degree programs into smaller stackable chunks. We expanded the ways we deliver dual credit. So we use, you know, to meet the needs of local communities, we use the academy model, transcripted credit, we can talk about this more in depth, if you’d like. But, you know, on-campus options for high school students. And then the District Boards Association, which is all the College Trustees, and the system worked with the legislature and the Governor to protect our dual enrollment program options and to make them a priority for outcomes based funding.

So Matt, by listening to our local communities and responding under our shared, you know, goals and mission, we’ve seen a 62% participation growth in dual enrollment in the WTCS in the last five years. 62%. Last year alone, we served more than 52,000 high school students across the state. They earned about 229,000 credits before they ever graduated from high school. These are all sorts of different areas: manufacturing is second only to business programs. But we had students earning credits in machining, automation, general education, robotics, analytics – just the whole gamut of offerings at a technical college. We regularly have students in high school who are not only starting on their college pathway, they’re also earning college credentials, including associate degrees, before they ever graduate from high school.

That is pretty exciting news to those students. It’s also incredibly exciting to their parents, because most of the dual enrollment that the technical colleges offer is done so at no cost to students or their parents. So we’re talking about millions and millions of dollars that Wisconsinites are able to save and still pursue their post-secondary goals.

Matt Kirchner 

So one of my favorite sayings, Morna, is “in God we trust all others bring data.” And you did exactly that: you brought the data. 62% growth in five years. I mean, if you can grow something by that amount in five years, that’s obviously a reflection of the huge effort that’s gone into it. 229,000 credits was that the number that I heard? 

Morna Foy 


Matt Kirchner 

That had been earned by high school students. Absolutely incredible.

Morna Foy 

Just last year. Yep, absolutely. 

Is Wisconsin on Track with its Academic and Career Planning Goals?

Matt Kirchner 

That is unbelievable. And I love the way you characterize the importance of bringing all the stakeholders – whether it’s parents, whether it’s leadership at the colleges, whether it’s the legislature, even the Governor and working at at every level to collaborate toward goals and toward ends. That makes sense. And that’s exactly what we should be doing in education, certainly in politics as well.

Speaking of collaboration with the Governor, we have Governor Tony Evers, who now has been our Governor for several years here in the state of Wisconsin. Back in 2017 and prior was the Superintendent of Public Instruction. And at that point in time, Governor Evers instructed K-12 districts in the state to implement what we call ACP or Academic and Career Planning in their districts, and to have that in place prior to September 2017. In as much as you talked about the importance of inspiring young people toward the right career pathways and thinking about career pathways in your last answer, now that we’re three and a half years on, since the implementation of ACP, do you feel like we’re doing everything, Morna, that we should be to provide robust and hands-on career exploration opportunities for our students?

Morna Foy 

Well, Matt, I will be honest, I mean, I’m a firm believer in continuous improvement. And I am also keenly aware of the rapid pace of change in the workplace, in our economy, in our whole lives that has just been, you know, forced by having to respond to a global pandemic. So to be honest, are we doing everything that we can? No. Can we do more? Yes. Will we always be able to do more? Yes. And we’re committed to that in the technical college system.

The world of career choices and the world of what’s going to be on the horizon is changing so fast that even if we spent the entire seventh grade of all of us doing nothing but career exploration, by the time we were in 10th grade, the list of possibilities will have already changed. So it has to be something that’s built in to the way we think about going to school, the way that we think about learning throughout our lifetimes. I think we have done a lot in partnership with DPI and in partnership with the state’s employers, the Department of Workforce Development, through programs like youth apprenticeship, through job fairs, the work with the university that we’ve done to reach out to students to build formal educational pathways.

So it’s easy to talk about lifelong learning and how important that is, and then how important it is to go on past high school. Now, I’ve been talking about those things for 20-some years I’ve been with the system. But in the last five to 10 years, there’s been a real concerted effort to build the kind of infrastructure that makes that lifelong learning possible. What do I mean by that? I mean things like youth apprenticeship. I mean things like stackable credentials offered by the tech college system that build upon one another, so that you can try something out, you can get a job, you can see how the real world works, employers can check you out. And then you can come back and throughout your career, you know, match your skill set with what you want to be doing for work. Those changes are ongoing, but we’ve just done ton of work in that area.

And I think that students and high school students are getting much more exposure to all options. So going on past high school doesn’t just mean going to a four year. But it also doesn’t mean just going into the world of work. That’s going to be work that we have to continue with our career coaches that we’re putting in high schools. It’s going to be work that has to continue with the way we design and deliver our dual enrollment programs so that students all over the state have an opportunity to start college even before they graduate high school.

And not just start college, not just start the classes. But I think the really important thing that we are working on and people need to – and that students are going to benefit the most from – is that we build their lifelong learning capacity. So we build this sort of expectation among our next generation that learning is something that you don’t just do for a certain period of your life and then stop. It’s something that you do throughout your career. And that we will as the higher education providers, create the actual tools and methods by which you’re going to be able to do that, whether it’s going to school online, whether it’s taking a break from work and coming for a shorter term training program that you can stack on top of previous work so that you’re not repeating, whether it’s working with employers to create programs where they literally pay for a student or for one of their employees to attend classes, kind of like the apprenticeship model, expanding the apprenticeship model so that you’re earning a wage, you’re earning your journey worker card, and you’re earning a college credential all at the same time. And that’s happening now and ever-increasing pace. It’s very exciting time to be in education.

How is Wisconsin Leading the Way in Apprenticeships?

Matt Kirchner 

There’s no question that it’s an exciting time. I love your characterization of building lifelong learning capacity. I think that’s a great way of looking at it. It really is a culture that we build into our society, to our employers, to our education systems. I’m proud to mention that I actually earned two stackable credentials last year from the Smart Automation Certification Alliance. Many of your colleges are engaged with that organization. We’ll talk about that just a little bit later. But you and I couldn’t agree more that we just have to find more and more interesting ways, and more and more creative ways to educate people, not just while we’re young, but literally throughout our lifetime, especially as technology changes at the rate that it is. That those skills that we are in today are probably not going to be serving us the way they need to be 10 and 15 years from now. We really need to build that capacity for lifelong learning, as you put it, into our DNA and into the way that we do things.

So on this topic of different ways of getting people toward the right careers, earlier this year, President Biden called for the jobs created by rebuilding America’s infrastructure to be filled by certainly diverse, local and well-trained workers. And he noted that this would be started by expanding the registered apprenticeship programs across the country and investing in pipelines to them. Do you agree with that strategy on registered apprenticeships and if so, what is the WTCS doing to foster interest in apprenticeships?

Morna Foy 

I love apprenticeship. Apprenticeship is one of the greatest ways to develop skills, to develop capacity, to give employers a reliable talent pipeline, something that they are always eager to do. I don’t know if you know it, but Wisconsin was the first state in the United States to have a formal registered apprenticeship program. And they actually created it in 1911, which is significant because it’s also the year that the Wisconsin Technical College System started. So we have been together with apprenticeship since the very beginning. And I know you do know that apprenticeship is actually a program run by the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development. Bureau Apprenticeship Standards, they’re the ones that set the expectations for what apprenticeships will – what they’ll know and what they’ll learn what does it mean to have a journey worker card.

But the technical colleges are the primary provider of what’s called related classroom instruction. So we help employers as they’re working through their on-the-job training experiences, but our main role is in the provision of that classroom instruction, and making sure that the students are being able to demonstrate all of the various stages or steps in the apprenticeship list of skill sets and competencies, right. So we have been actively working with DWD, not just now, but always to promote apprenticeship, in part because it has such great outcomes for learners. I mean, we’re talking about median wages for apprentices in the state of $80,000. It’s just phenomenal. They have graduate with virtually no debt, we know a constant concern of a lot of college students.

And I think that’s probably one of the biggest differences about Wisconsin, because there are other states – Indiana is another – that you know, do well in the apprenticeship and registered apprenticeship programs. But because Wisconsin has always connected apprenticeship – registered apprenticeship – to the technical college system, we have a big head start on treating apprenticeship like other post-secondary educational experiences. We can assign, we can crosswalk all the learning that goes on in an apprenticeship to academic programs and credits. And that sounds like a lot of educational mumbo jumbo, I think, to some some folks in your audience, Matt. But the truth is that that connection, and that alignment with our non-apprenticeship programs, if you will, is what enables us to incorporate a technical diploma, an industry credential, a building block to an associate degree and a bachelor’s degree now, right within the apprenticeship program. A lot of other states are trying to figure out, how do they do that? Because they’ve always treated apprenticeship in another area outside of higher ed. So we have a big advantage there. And that’s where I’d say is most of our work is going on right now is to try to build a fully integrate apprenticeship into the career pathway model of delivery.

Truthfully, for students, you imagine if you’re an 18 year old or a 28 year old, who’s thinking about what do I do with my life right now? You want choices, you want options, you want to start something that’s going to lead you to more choices. And if we can make apprenticeship another component of a pathway, it’s going to appeal to that many more people. It’s not just a dead end. I mean, it to me, in my mind has never been one. But I know it’s suffered that rap, like that’s something you do if you can’t go to college. Well, now, it’s something you do if you want to be successful in your career. And it’s another way to get you on a pathway that’s going to be successful for years to come. So we’re really excited about that integration of apprenticeship and other credentials.

We’re also doing a lot to reach out to communities that haven’t necessarily always thought or seen themselves as apprentices. And when we’re doing that a couple of ways in partnership with DWD: expanding the use of apprenticeship into new industry areas like finance and healthcare. But we’re also targeting certain populations: women, other minorities, populations, you know, men in health care fields, people of color in this state, to make sure that everyone can be made aware of and have the proper information to make an informed decision. So we do a lot to promote wages of apprentices, time to degree, debt load, job opportunities. I mean, it’s essentially it’s, you know, it’s not just because they’re working while they’re learning, but apprentices are all they’re 100% employed. You know, they’re employed while they’re in apprentices, but they have a journeyworker card, and because it’s a registered apprenticeship, journeyworker card, they can take that anywhere, once they have it. It’s very mobile. It’s very highly sought after, by all employers in Wisconsin across many disciplines, but you know, other places too.

So it’s just, it’s just an incredible opportunity. And in this state with so many options, there are 77, I think, different registered apprenticeships in Wisconsin. And that number has grown by 10% in the last six years. We’ve got a couple of other new ones on the pipeline. So we’re doing a lot of work in apprenticeship, not just to promote it as a good option. But to really make it something that is applicable to a lot more industries, and to a lot more potential individuals in this state.

Matt Kirchner 

Excellent. And you and I would certainly share, you know, that passion that interest in advocating for apprentices and apprenticeships across the state of Wisconsin, across the United States, we feel like it’s going to be a critical trend, if you will. And in as much as you’ve seen 10% growth, which is great, in the last six years, I think we’re gonna continue to see that kind of growth in the in the world of apprenticeships.

But if you’ll permit me a quick story, in another part of my life I’m working on a relatively good-sized construction project that has abudget somewhere between $8 and $10 million. So every week I go on site, just to kind of check in and see how things are moving along. I was there last Thursday morning, and had a little extra time on my hands. And there was a young man to me, he was mid 30s. And he was doing some plumbing work on site. And I just started chatting with him. And it turned out that this was a young person who had graduated from a high school in southeastern Wisconsin, tried a four year degree that wasn’t quite right for him had worked in the restaurant business for a long time. And as you can imagine, that’s been a tough place to be the last 12 months for sure. So a big smile on his face, just loving life. We happen to be outside when he was working. And I just asked him how he ended up doing what he was doing. And he said, “I’m six months into my apprenticeship,” he said, “I’m 34 years old, I have a huge life ahead of me.” He said, “I have never been happier.” And these are his words. He said, “I only wish that somebody had told me about this pathway when I was in high school, because I should have done this right out of high school.” He wasn’t bitter at all. He was just like he’s on the right pathway now.

But what a great message, I thought for the value of apprenticeship again, bringing the data average median wages of $80,000 a year – who wouldn’t want a job like that? Absolutely fantastic. So credit to the you and to the system for all the work you’re doing advocating for the apprenticeship model. 

Morna Foy 

That’s awesome. I mean, I just love stories like that. That’s why, you know, my job is hard sometimes. But it is such an awesome job because I get to hear stories like that. I get to meet people like that. And I’m so glad that you had that experience. But you know, as an employer yourself Matt, when I hear employers talk about apprenticeship, and when I see our apprentices get recognition, because I think what really excites me about apprenticeship is the way that we have reframed what it means and what kind of an accomplishment it is.

There’s a lot of talk, I think you’ve heard it about attainment goals, and how states need to increase the attainment levels of their population if they need if they’re going to be able to match employers’ needs for high skills going forward. Wisconsin’s current attainment goal is called 60 Forward, and we’re just trying to get 60% of our adult population to have something beyond high school, something post-secondary. In almost every state in the Union, what they are talking about is something at a two year or a four year university – an associate degree or a bachelor’s degree. But in Wisconsin, we count apprenticeship in that mix. We make a big deal about it because there are 1000s of people that apprenticeship is absolutely going to be the most exciting and successful way for them to go. And it’s on us to you know, build it in, as I said earlier to other career objectives, like an associate degree or a bachelor’s degree if that’s something you want to do, but the apprenticeships themselves.

I mean, you’re just like you said, starting at youth apprenticeship. Yes, lots of states are doing youth apprenticeship. And it’s mostly career exploration. But here in Wisconsin, we are connecting youth apprenticeship to registered apprenticeship. So we are actually creating that formal bridge that gets young people not waiting until they’re 27 years old to discover something like apprenticeship but doing it earlier, because I hear the same  stories. God, it’s just so awesome. I wish I’d known about it before. We got to do something to change that not just wish it. We have to act, and we’re going to do that by making even stronger connections between youth apprenticeship and adult registered apprenticeship going forward.

How the WTCS Helps Employers Train and Reskill Employees

Matt Kirchner 

And then telling those stories like we did when we hear those great stories. And certainly, you know sometimes in the minutiae of running a huge organization like the WTCS, you forget you’re affecting lives in great ways every single day. And I know that’s what your career has been about and what your future is about. Our guest today on The TechEd Podcast: Morna Foy, the President of the Wisconsin Technical College System. Morna, you mentioned in your last response the importance of stackable credentials, the importance of lifelong learning.

Here on The TechEd Podcast we interview executives of private sector employers all the time. And one of the most common issues that they raise is the importance of training the importance of lifelong learning, as you mentioned, for their incumbent workers, people already in the workforce. Now I know this is a key component of your organization’s strategic plan. But tell our audience about customized instruction, technical assistance programs, and so on offered by the WTCS.

Morna Foy 

I’d love to because this is also something that I’m really proud of, and I think is to some degree, quite unique in Wisconsin, because of the incredible relationships our 16 colleges have with the state’s employers. We are the envy of the nation, I will guarantee you that. It’s not just about education and employers talking, it’s about them working together. Wisconsin’s employers serve on our advisory or governing boards at the local college level. But they also serve on our advisory committees. For every one of our programs, we have advisory committees made up of local employers who not only tell us what kinds of skills that they need students to learn, but how we deliver it in what format is this? A short term credential is it is something we should do through an industry credential? Is it’s something we need an associate’s degree for? And that that time commitment. So we don’t just ask them what we think, we take their advice, and we put it into practice.

And because of that, employers feel, I think, a strong sense of ownership over their local college. And I mean that in the best possible words. They, just as they would commit resources, and effort into their own business operations, they also commit resources and effort to their local technical college’s work. And I mean, we have over 93, or 94, somewhere in the 90% every year, employers in the state say that technical college is important to their business success. I mean, it’s just an incredible relationship. And that relationship has really driven the development of customized instruction, and the use of industry credentials, alongside of or as part of our academic program offerings. That’s always been the case in the system.

But I would again, say in the last 10 years, it just has exploded in its importance, for all sorts of reasons: the endless search for high skill employees, the the rapid pace of change, that employers need to make adjustments quickly. And that speed in which those changes are happening are accelerating. Well, you’re an employer, I’m kind of speaking to the, you know, choir here, but I just think that that has those those changes in our workplace and in our economy, and in our industry, has driven education to change. It’s also and be, you know, we like to think of ourselves in a tech college system as being pretty flexible, and we change our programming a lot. But we still have to work to keep up with industry, it’s just the way it is.

So customized instruction happens in a lot of different ways. We actually do contract training for employers under contract. They pay for their employees under a negotiated rate. The year before the pandemic struck, we had about 3300 contracts in the system. Tt was typically done on site. So we actually send an instructor to the place of employment. But we had another 1000 contracts to provide technical assistance. So in that, in those cases, we might be advising a company on the use of a new piece of equipment, for example. Or we might be helping them redesign their processes to become more efficient, or to help their supervisors with a new personnel issue they’re trying to work through. So we have we do a lot of that kind of work. We also are seeing more and more worker learners. And it’s all a part of the lifelong learning career pathway infrastructure.

And that’s where this idea of industry credentialing can really be an asset. It’s going to be different in every Technical College because industry credentials have value in the workplace and in the marketplace, as the person who holds that credential only if employers in your area also value it. And Wisconsin has a lot of different regions with lots of different local economies, right? So they care more about certain things in certain parts of the state. Southwest Wisconsin or southeast Wisconsin, excuse me, where Gateway is located, has some very, very, very big manufacturing companies. I’m sure you are intimately aware of them. And they recognize, they have certain national manufacturing credentials that are I mean, I don’t really think it’s overstating it to say they are literal gold in the marketplace. If you have them, you’re going to get a job, you’re going to get multiple job offers. And so those are credentials that Gateway, a college like Gateway Technical College has to incorporate in their programming. We make them available as standalone credentials. We also make them available as something that you can acquire while you’re completing an associate degree in several different manufacturing related program areas. Other colleges are doing the same thing. They might be a different set of industry credentials that might be more appropriate to their regional economies.

But the idea that maximizing a person’s time: when you come to the technical college, and you want to get skilled up and you want to get credentialed, it’s because you want to be able to go back out into the labor market, and get a great job and demand a great salary. And from an employer’s point of view, they will need to have ways to distinguish between all the different applicants they have, especially in a time like now where a lot of people’s career plans have been completely rearranged. Some of the jobs people thought they were going to have for a while, don’t even exist anymore. So employers while they are searching, constantly searching for the right employees, that doesn’t mean they’re not getting a lot of applicants that maybe aren’t the right employee. And to try to sift through that quickly, they need to rely on some recognized credential. And whether that’s a degree from a technical college, which has high value in the state for area employers, or it’s an industry recognized credential. Preferably, I think they’d say both.

And I think that’s what students are saying now, too. We want to spend, we want to get as many different indications of our capacity and our skills and our knowledge as we can in the shortest amount of time that is required. So if we can double them up, if we can integrate them, that’s good for the student, it’s good for the employer. And ultimately, that’s what the tech colleges measure themselves by: are we responding to the needs of our two customers, which are students and employers?

Matt Kirchner 

Absolutely. And those third party credentials and associate degrees, you mentioned them both so many cases, now you see them dovetailing together. And so it’s not an either or, but you know, using again, that term stackable, it’s like I earn one, and it’s just a pathway to continue down whatever road I’m on toward whatever educational goal, I’m after. You and I certainly agree that a third party credential is only as good as an employer’s demand for that credential. You know, I tell a lot of folks that if we tell a student you’re earning a credential, and then they get to the workforce, and nobody values that we’ve really kind of ripped off that student. That’s certainly not the way to go about it. And then one of the things that I know you’re so very proud of is how well those third party credentials offered by the WTCS system colleges align to workforce needs, to employer demand, and in so many cases provide those pathways to technical diplomas, to associate’s degrees and beyond. So that whole area of third party credentials is something that that we’re watching really closely at The TechEd Podcast, that were fascinated by. As that changes, as manufacturing technology changes, as demand for production stages. And go ahead. 

Morna Foy 

Yeah, I just I’m sorry to interrupt you. But I do think that if that interest area is is sustained by The TechEd Podcast, one area that I didn’t mention or group I didn’t mention in my previous remarks was that, you know, it sounds easy to dovetail and incorporate industry credentials with academic programs. But it takes a lot of work. And the people, it takes a lot of work from are faculty. So I just want to give them a shout out. And I just want to give voice to the fact that employers and faculty need to work together to make sure that we can translate skill set or translate a piece of knowledge that happens in the place of work to a curriculum requirement that is part of a degree. They are there sometimes they don’t speak the same language. And we have to rely on our translators, which is our faculty to make that connection and to make that bridge. And you know, that’s one of the reasons why tech college occupational faculty have to have real-world industry experience. We require that of them. It’s just as important as their skills as teachers and as educators to know what is going on in business and be able to speak employers’ language and to understand it at that very sort of practitioner level. We call them practitioners, you’d call them people who actually work for a living. But I think that that’s just a piece of this puzzle that I don’t want, I don’t want people to forget about because it is is really fundamental to our ability as technical colleges to do this kind of work.

Matt Kirchner 

No question. I’m glad that you mentioned that, you know, having an opportunity to work with faculty members from your system, across the state of Wisconsin, it is incredible. And I can tell you that when employers who maybe haven’t been as engaged with their technical college become engaged for one reason or another, that’s one of the things that amazes them is that these people, they’re certainly I mean, they’re educators, they’re trained educators, they understand how to deliver learning, they’re very, very good at it. But they’re also people with tremendous subject matter expertise that comes from whatever that subject matter is, whatever their area of focus is, they’ve they’ve lived it, and they’ve been in the field and they know it backwards and forwards.

One of the things we tell our employers quite frequently – you mentioned both your governing board and your advisory board – how important it is for those employers to be engaged at the at the board level. And I serve on several, in fact, many advisory boards across the state. And I would tell you that in as much as I like to think that I impart what we see taking place in industry, trends that we see to the faculty to the deans and the program managers within the colleges. The other thing I’ll tell you is that I learned as much by serving on those boards, as I think – probably even more – than the programs learn from me so that employer engagement is so very important. And yes, you will be pleasantly I don’t want to say surprised, because some people already know this, but you will be impressed if you’re not engaged with your local technical college. Regardless of the program, regardless of the school. It’s amazing how, how brilliant these these instructors and your faculty are. So credit again to you for creating a culture that welcomes them and makes them feel so so very appreciated.

Morna Foy 

They’re superstars though, I’m just I’m just a cheerleader.

What is the Value of Third-Party Certifications?

Matt Kirchner 

So on this topic, again, of certifications of stackable credentials, Morna, we see our technical colleges all over the state, adopting Industry 4.0 technologies as manufacturing technology advances. These are things like smart sensors and smart devices, control systems, data analytics playing such a huge, huge role. And while every college is doing this in their own way, many of them have standardized on the competencies promulgated by the Smart Automation Certification Alliance, commonly called SACA. From the system level, or those third party certifications a good way of aligning programs given as we’ve talked about the individualized nature of the technical colleges in the state of Wisconsin?

Morna Foy 

Third party certifications are a critical part of building pathways to career success that have many on and off ramps. They, of course, are going to vary among technical colleges because they are best and most valuable when they reflect the needs of local regional economies, and the employers that are looking for credentials and certifications as a measure of the skills and knowledge of a potential employee. So there is a variety.

One of the great things in the technical college system, and something we touched on before, Matt is the way that our colleges collaborate. So that’s the word we use. It also can be described as the way they steal ideas from each other, and take advantage of the successes and failures of their fellow technical colleges, so that they don’t repeat the mistakes, but they definitely implement the good work. And I just want to point to a couple of leaders in this area, whether you’re talking about someone like Dr. Bryan Albrecht at Gateway Technical College, who’s been on the leading edge, as you mentioned, of Industry 4.0 initiatives, I mean, building entire degree programs around the idea and career pathways around the idea. Or Dr. Susan May at Fox Valley Technical College, whose college really leads the entire system in its industry, contract training and direct assistance to employers in this state.

Those two leaders don’t keep that success to themselves. They share the secret sauce, and they do you know, both internal conversations with other college leaders, but also make their teams available. We do all sorts of cross, you know, training and educational opportunities, so that we can learn how to do what they have done so successfully. And I think that that, you know, that’s another part of the balancing act about allowing our colleges to be real reflections and true reflections of their local communities, but at the same time, not be isolated. And when we have a college that like Gateway that’s been a leader and been driven because of the industries in their area, we are all going to grow and benefit from that across the system. It’s just a terrific way to make change real.

What Sectors, Besides Manufacturing, Are Being Disrupted?

Matt Kirchner 

And is ensuring best practices is almost another word for stealing ideas, right? But it’s, again, nicely, it’s amazing. Across the state of Wisconsin, there really is this this healthy sense of collaboration and probably a little bit of competition which drives improvement among the individual colleges. The the two individuals that you mentioned, by the way, certainly Dr. Bryan Albrecht, a great partner to The TechEd Podcast, he’s a guest that we’ve had on and a fantastic leader at Gateway. Having run and owned a company in Fox Valley’s district, I can certainly echo what you’ve said about Dr. Susan May, their ability to build just rock solid relationships with their industrial employers and produce really, really solid learning outcomes for their students and others as well. So two absolutely fantastic examples.

Now, we’ve talked a lot today Morna about manufacturing technology, we’ve kind of wandered into some other areas, but maybe not quite as much. As you think outside of manufacturing, what are some of these other sectors in the state of Wisconsin that are seeing major disruption in the last several years? And what are technical colleges doing to adapt their programming to make sure that our students earning degrees graduating from these programs have the skills needed for careers in these other sectors outside of manufacturing?

Morna Foy 

Yeah, this is a really interesting question that you are posing, because manufacturing is such an important part of Wisconsin’s economy, but also our state’s history. And the technical colleges are deeply connected to the state’s manufacturing industry. So a lot of times, that’s the only area that people think that we work in.

But the truth is, tech colleges, we have over 500 different program areas. And some of our biggest ones are in healthcare, we provide a large number of the state’s RNs, we educate almost all Allied Health professionals in the state. And so you know, that’s a big huge area. Another gigantic area for Wisconsin, and of course, the tech colleges is agriculture and all the related professions to agriculture, which is just enormous. And I think that those three sectors alone, when you talk about technological change that has happened, it blows your mind, there is no I mean, it blows my mind. And I hang around with these people.

But they’re talking about, you know, a few years ago, it was taking advantage of better information about the weather and soil conditions, and all the things that go into planting. Now we’re talking about having a GPS, self-propelled planting system that is literally dropping different kinds of seed and fertilizer combinations, that could vary row to row or this half of the rows, and then the second half, they do something different because the acidity in the soil is different on that piece of property. It’s just incredible the amount of knowledge that individuals in any industry in this state have to keep up with.

And especially when you’re talking about the fact that most companies in Wisconsin, or most economic organizations, if you will, whether that could be a farm or a clinic, in Wisconsin, they’re not big. They’re not the the giant Snap-ons and the Tranes. I mean, yes, we have some great, great legacy companies in Wisconsin, but we also, for the most part are small and medium sized. And so companies like that need to constantly find a way that they can easily stay current. They’re competing with companies all over the globe. And so I would say that all industries in Wisconsin need to keep up, they need to be linked up with the technical college system so that they can keep pace, they need to have training opportunities that are accessible, whether that’s using some kind of combination of online, virtual reality, augmented reality. I mean, I don’t know about you, but I don’t know too many people that really enjoy just talking at a screen or getting talked at via screen.

The technical college students in particular, they chose us, in many cases, because they like to do things. They like to do them. They don’t want to learn about them, just learn. They don’t want to just read about them, they want to actually do them. And so augmented technology is really allowing us to do a lot more of that work where you’re – it’s like CSI on TV. I mean, think it’s not real, but it’s actually happening right now. And I’ve seen somebody at Gateway Technical College building an engine that was hanging in the air being projected up on their by their screen, the parts. So I mean, it’s just a really cool time. I think other areas that are growing in this state and are truly the pressure for them has been quite high in the last year is our IT professionals. I can’t imagine there’s anyone left in the planet that says that we are not dependent on our IT professionals anymore. Every single industry there is, needs help. And we can all be good at it. Information security, IT security is just also been an area where even small companies now realize they need to do better. So that’s going to be an area of growth.

I also think that there is just going to be a much, much more emphasis on entrepreneurship in almost every walk of life, whether that’s, you know, business, or the arts, or industry. People want to take control over their own destiny. So weaving in – you can talk about doing more in terms of entrepreneurship as a as a career. But you can also find ways – and we have been an arrow point to have to do more – to find ways to build in entrepreneurship skills into all of our programming, again, how do we maximize people’s career options? How do we best prepare them to be flexible, lifelong learners who can be creative about how they make a living and how they contribute to their communities? And this pandemic, we got people making all sorts of changes and starting all sorts of businesses that it’s crazy time, but it’s also really creative and exciting time.

A Focus on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion

Matt Kirchner 

Without question, and lots of silver linings to the last year and as much as there’s been pain and agony and some terrible things that have happened, some interesting innovation and silver linings coming out of that period as well. I like the way you characterize entrepreneurship, by the way, as taking control of your own destiny. I agree, we’re gonna see more and more of that and the ability to do that will become more and more important as people plan for their futures.

On the topic of planning for the future. I know that the WTCS board has been really busy doing exactly that recently publishing your 2021 to 2025 strategic directions. I want to point out for our audience that the very first three values in that document, contain and include diversity, equity, and inclusion. So we know that this is an important initiative and everybody’s talking about it these days, and not everybody is getting it right. As we close out our time today, Dr. Morna Foy, what specifically, and those three initiatives will the WTCS do in the next four years to make sure that it’s living up to these values?

Morna Foy 

First, we’re making it a constant conversation. So it’s not just this month, or just this year, it’s something that we’re doing regularly at the system level and at the college level. And then throughout the system and in college. And there are conversations that we’re having with our partners. So the state’s employers, state department’s of public health and K-12, and workforce partners. We’re also having it with our various industry partners, law enforcement, first responders. These are difficult conversations, but they’re the ones that have to happen if we’re actually going to make change. People have to have an opportunity to ask questions, they have to have an opportunity to express their feelings and their emotions. So sometimes that’s anger, sometimes that’s frustration. And it’s coming from all different – people that there are in this state, everybody’s got a different lived experience about these issues. So we are going to take the time, and create the spaces to make those conversations a continuous part of our operations. Just like we talked about collaboration, just like we give attention to the need to work together, we need to give attention to these topics.

Second thing we’re going to do, Matt, is we’re going to do a self assessment. Tech colleges are not afraid of the truth But when it comes to anything, including how we’re doing. So we’re taking a look at our curriculum, we’re taking a look at the way we hire the way that we assign tasks, how do we design and deliver programming? And are we really making the decisions that will help greatest number of people be successful, because that’s our ultimate goal. So we’re going through that process program by program and function by function within the system. We’re also going to focus on data. Data, you know, is where you check whether or not you’re really doing anything, or you’re just talking about doing something. I don’t know how to be any blunter about it than that. But we are identifying, you know, data is what helps us identify where we’re not succeeding. And it helps us figure out whether a strategy that we put in place to try to make progress worked.

It’s how we know for example, that stackable credentials work. It was an idea that some people thought we were crazy, you know, students would get some half baked thing and then they go off into the workplace and never be able to get anywhere. But now that we’ve been doing it for a while and we’ve been doing it in more areas, we are able to look at the data to see that no, actually stackable credentials has improved recruitment, it’s improved retention, and it’s improved compensation. So we know that students go in and out of our colleges and the places of work and are doing well, as a result. So those benefits have applied to different population groups, whether they’re people of color, male or female, it’s really a great program. So we’re going to continue to rely on data. And we’re going to continue to publish that data, regardless of what it says, because we want our stakeholders and the public to know what we know: that we’re working on these issues, and that we are making progress on them.

And that’s where the sort of the last big thing is that we’re going to really pay attention to the fact that we have to model for the state’s employers and for our students what we’re going for here, which means we have to do better as employers ourselves. We have to – people have a hard time with this, but the truth is, if you don’t see yourself doing something, if you don’t see yourself being successful at something, and by that mean someone else being successful at it, who looks like you talks like you, who has the same background as you, it’s really hard to imagine that that’s something that you can be good at. And I’ll just point to the STEM fields, for example, and the project that SC Johnson and Gateway have going on right now to encourage more women and students of color to pursue STEM careers. It’s not that they can’t be successful in those careers. It’s not that employers don’t want them. It’s that there is so few role models out there that it’s you know, it does doesn’t get into people’s minds. And that’s true for tech college as well. We need to have faculty of color and know faculty who are women in those disciplines, so that students can see success. So we’re going to work on that as well.

Matt Kirchner 

So modeling the right behaviors, setting the right example, so very important. In addition to the other tenets tat you mentioned, certainly dialogue, self assessment. Of course, we love the reference to data and being able to have something to measure to prove that we’re accomplishing those goals, those goals being diversity, equity and inclusion. As the WTCS heads out and sets its course for the next four years: 2021 to 2025 in its strategic directions. What a great discussion we’ve had today, Morna. It’s been so much fun to have you with us. Dr. Morna Foy, the President of the Wisconsin Technical College System, a great leader, a humble leader, a transparent leader in a servant leader. Morna, thank you so much for taking some time for us toda.,

Morna Foy 

Thank you, Matt, and thanks for all the work that you do. I think this podcast and just your presence out there in Wisconsin’s economic and technology infrastructure is a positive, it’s a positive energy. And it’s a conversation that I think Wisconsin needs to have. We sometimes are really humble as a state. But we have to sort of embrace where we are leaders and where we are strong, because that’s how we’re going to have the energy and the inspiration to make even greater strides. Wisconsin is really a great place. And I want to just thank you for all the contributions you make to it.

Matt Kirchner 

I appreciate that very much. We share that affection for the state of Wisconsin without a doubt. And we’re just proud to do our small part alongside great partners like the technical college system here in Wisconsin to secure the American dream for the next generation. So thank you. 

Morna Foy 

Thank you.

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