School of Applied Technologies programs enjoy record enrollments

By: Mike Shiels, Dean of the School of Applied Technologies, Waukesha County Technical College

When the economy is strong, jobs are plentiful and college enrollments are steady. When the unemployment rate is high, people tend to go back to school and enrollments rise. In Waukesha County Technical College’s School of Applied Technologies, there has been a bit of a paradigm shift. The unemployment rate in the United States in October 2018 remained at a low 3.7 percent, but enrollment in our applied technologies programs soared.

Leading the way in enrollment increases is the Automation Systems Technology (AST) program with a 30 percent increase over the last year, making it the largest associate degree program in our school. All programs combined have experienced a five percent increase.

Enrollment numbers for fall 2018 for our three largest associate degree programs – AST, metal fabrication/welding and graphic design – are 132 students, 123 students and 121 students, respectively.

I attribute the spike in enrollment to several things: the great partnership we have with the Waukesha County Business Alliance and the Schools2SkillsTM tours, which expose high school and middle school kids to the great careers available in manufacturing, and our summer career exploration camps, which give middle and high school students insight into technical careers; our high-end facilities, labs and equipment – made possible thanks to the generosity of donors – that provide students with cutting-edge learning opportunities; and the increased attention in the media for focusing on high-demand Industry 4.0 and automation-type jobs.

In addition, in all our programs, employers are consistently reaching out and looking for new ways to partner with us – through internships and apprenticeships, and donations of scholarships, tools and equipment. We are fortunate to have that kind of advocacy and support.

All of that translates to a trained workforce, which is a win for students and a win for employers. Most students in these programs are getting jobs in these areas before they graduate, if they’re not currently employed in industry, and at competitive wages.

While traditional associate degree programs have seen strong numbers, so, too, have apprenticeships. In January 2018, we began offering a mechatronics technician apprenticeship, and signed on 14 new apprentices at two local companies. (A second group of apprentices signed on in fall 2018.) Participation in plumbing and electrical apprenticeships also increased – an enrollment jump of about 30 percent – thanks to legislative changes to the apprenticeship ratio bill. To date, the school offers 11 different apprenticeship options.

Looking ahead, we plan to continue to expand programming to meet workforce demands. A new Dual Enrollment Academy program (for high school seniors) in building construction trades was added this year, which joins three other dual enrollment programs in the school, and new certificates are in the works, including one that combines robotics and information technology and another focusing on electrical and instrumentation.