Creating the Well-Rounded Tech Workers of Wisconsin's Future

Dec 20, 2017

These days, communities around Wisconsin increasingly look to their schools to develop students beyond reading, writing & arithmetic -- especially as big players like Foxconn join the business landscape. Employers want future employees, and that means giving kids opportunities to hone skills they can’t learn from a textbook.

Learning to become 'people-savvy'

It’s mid-morning on a Tuesday. Most of the students at Milwaukee Collegiate Academy are sitting in class -- but not sophomore Clarence Wilkerson. He’s roaming between classrooms.

Credit Clarence Wilkerson/MCA

Before you ask “where’s his hall pass?,” you should know: Clarence has a special role at this North side charter school. He’s a “Tech Ambassador” -- one of a handful of students responsible for monitoring & maintaining computers and other technology around the building.

Today, that job involves delivering laptop cords.

“They call me the ‘cord man’!” Clarence jokes, with a smile. “When teachers need cords for stuff, I get them to them. That’s what I usually do.”

MCA students and staff submit “help desk tickets” when they have technology issues – everything from broken classroom projectors to frozen laptops. It’s the Tech Ambassadors’ job to respond.

And sometimes, that service aspect – dealing with “customers” – can be the toughest part of the job.

"The autonomy to figure out solutions to problems is really powerful."

“We learn people skills a little bit more, and not to just go off at people,” says senior senior KeyJuan Scott. “We learn how to better communicate. Let them say what they [have] to say, take that in, give them a response.”

READ: Learn more about the new, Facebook-engineered learning model in place at MCA

These are exactly the takeaways Tech Ambassador supervisor Bill Attewell wants his kids to leave high school with. Attewell, MCA’s IT director, started the program about a year ago. He says, these kids know their way around electronics – they’re millenials, after all. But he’s aiming to instill more than just tech skills here.

“To be successful in almost any job, you have to have that ability to problem solve around an issue,” he says. “They may get a ticket in, and they have to figure out, ‘What are my steps? What do I need to do now?’ The autonomy to figure out solutions to problems is really powerful.”

What are 'Essential Employability Qualities'?
Tech Ambassador supervisor Bill Attewell estimates his kids have helped resolve more help desk tickets in the first semester than in the previous school year.
Credit Michelle Maternowski

In southeastern Wisconsin, the prospect of turning students into homegrown employees for Foxconn looms large these days. The company says their plant – in progress, out in Mount Pleasant -- could eventually employ 13,000 people.

Whether it’s a big tech company like Foxconn or Rockwell – or a much smaller operation – employers in Wisconsin and around the country say they need well-rounded workers who can get the job done. 

In some cases, that involves specialized skills. But in every case, it involves basic codes of professional conduct -- otherwise known as "essential employability qualities.”

"We're talking about a set of abilities that people have when they enter the world and engage with other people."

“We’re really talking about a set of abilities that people have when they enter the world and engage with other people,” describes Carole Chabries, dean of the School of Adult Learning and New Initiatives at Alverno College, in an interview with WUWM’s Lake Effect. “It’s different from something like the ability to type, or the ability to code. It’s more about the ability to work in a space where there are other people who, with you, are thinking, and leading, problem solving, disagreeing, and challenging – and how you comport yourself in an environment like that.”

Chabries says it’s these essential qualities – work ethic and teamwork, for example – that help determine whether a student is ready for the workplace.

Leadership and written communication skills top the list of attributes employers want to see on new college grads’ resumes -- according to national survey data.

MCA senior KeyJuan Scott works in the Tech Ambassador office -- a former supply closet the students affectionately refer to as "the Batcave."
Credit Michelle Maternowski

And that’s the kind of know-how kids are gaining at Milwaukee Collegiate Academy – as well as other schools in southeastern Wisconsin that offer programming to teach kids how to conduct themselves in the workforce.

Many districts, including MPS, offer students a variety of opportunities for internships and other credit-bearing work experiences.

LISTEN: How Can Wisconsin Schools Prepare for Foxconn, Other Jobs of the Future?

Most of MCA’s Tech Ambassadors have jobs outside of school walls – some cashiers, some shelf-stockers, at businesses like Home Depot, Goodwill and Wal-Mart. These are jobs where they can – and do -- learn how to be a good employee.

But MCA junior Shadavia Goodwin says there’s something about her role at school -- an environment where she’s usually the student -- that’s different.

“When Mr. Attewell’s not in the building, the seniors hold it down with tickets and everything,” she describes. “Being a tech ambassador is [about] setting an example of being a leader. We hold a lot of responsibility here.”

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