MadREP in the News

The Center Square: Wisconsin apprenticeship programs growing more popular

Source: The Center Square

Apprenticeship programs across Wisconsin are on the rise, as companies fiercely compete for talent in the post-pandemic era.

Wisconsin Apprenticeship Deputy Director Liz Pusch pointed to an ongoing surge in business engagement with the state Department of Workforce Development (DWD), adding that more students and even college-educated workers now view the program as an avenue toward better job opportunities.

“Our average age of a registered apprentice is 28 years old,” Pusch shared during a recent speech at the Madison Region’s Economic Development and Diversity Summit hosted by the Madison Region Economic Partnership and the Urban League of Greater Madison, according to “So people are starting in their career route, and then they’re figuring out, ‘This is not what I want to do.’”

In April, DWD announced a new record-high 8,357 high school junior and senior students were taking part in the Youth Apprenticeship programs during the 2022-23 school year, and just weeks before then state officials highlighted that a record 15,900 apprentices took part in the Registered Apprenticeship program last year. While many of the programs typically train workers for a specific occupation, the youth program is structured to open participants to a growing list of career choices.

“Employers are starting to see some increased retention because you’re making and building this bond with the workers,” said Seth Lentz, executive director of the Workforce Development Board of South Central Wisconsin, adding that more businesses are starting to internalize the long-term advantages of investing in their own workers’ skills.

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Wisconsin Inno: Two Wisconsin groups win NSF grants to plot innovation hubs that could land $160 million

Wisconsin Inno Logo With Banner

Source: Wisconsin Inno

Similar to the way in which Silicon Valley is synonymous with information technology, Wisconsin could eventually be known for water innovation or sustainable agriculture.

At least, that’s what two new Wisconsin groups are working toward.

The two separate teams led by The Water Council and WiSys each recently received a $1 million federal grant to plan innovation hubs around water and sustainable agriculture. Each group has two years to assemble a proposal for how they would use $160 million to make those hubs a reality.

The money comes from the U.S. National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Regional Innovation Engines program. The two Wisconsin teams are among 44 U.S. teams to land a $1 million, two-year development grant. Five of those teams will each win a 10-year, up to $160 million grant to establish their regional innovation hub.

“Through these planning awards, NSF is seeding the future for in-place innovation,” NSF director Sethuraman Panchanathan said in a statement earlier this month. “This will unleash ideas, talent, pathways and resources to create vibrant innovation ecosystems all across our nation.”

The Regional Innovation Engines program was authorized in the U.S. CHIPS and Science Act of 2022. It’s designed to increase commercial investment in research and development outside of traditional U.S. tech hubs and create thriving companies focused on emerging technologies that solve national and societal challenges.

Water and energy resilience

One of Wisconsin’s regional innovation teams is focused on water and energy resilience for manufacturers and utilities. It’s led by The Water Council, which has its headquarters in Milwaukee.

Other partners include the MKE Tech Hub Coalition, the Wisconsin Technology Council, Marquette University, the Wisconsin Center for Manufacturing and Productivity and the Madison Region Economic Partnership.

The partners are taking an industry-led approach, involving companies including A.O. Smith Corp., Rockwell Automation and WEC Energy Group. Their goal is to spur job creation and water innovation by connecting companies, universities, governments and other stakeholders to quickly scale solutions that help manufacturers and utilities adapt to the effects of climate change.

“We have industry strengths already around water technology,” Water Council president and CEO Dean Amhaus said. “Can we become that water energy hub that people are attracted to and be able to grow those businesses?”

Sustainable agriculture

Wisconsin’s other regional innovation engine team is focused on advancing sustainable agriculture. It’s led by WiSys, a Madison-based nonprofit that supports technology transfer for the University of Wisconsin System.

Other partners include all 13 University of Wisconsin institutions, the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Research Foundation and the Wisconsin Technology Council.

The group’s objectives include translating research into industry collaborations, supporting sustainability tech startups and attracting investment to fund sustainable agriculture.

“This NSF Engine could be a key economic driver for Wisconsin,” WiSys president Arjun Sanga said in a May 11 statement. “Just as a public-private partnership turned Wisconsin into the ‘Dairy State’ in the last century, this potential engine’s public-private partnership could have a profound impact on the future of the state and the world.”

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WaterWorld: Wisconsin partners receive $1M NSF award to address water, energy resiliency

Source: WaterWorld Magazine

The Water Council announced that it and its partners have received $1 million from the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) to plan a Regional Innovation Engine in eastern Wisconsin. The NSF Engine will help address water and energy resilience for utilities and manufacturers.

The Water Council applied for the two-year grant with its lead partners MKE Tech Hub Coalition, Wisconsin Technology Council, Marquette University, Wisconsin Center for Manufacturing and Productivity, and Madison Region Economic Partnership.

“We know businesses and communities are desperately in need of solutions to mitigate and adapt to the effects of climate change. With its strong water and energy solution companies and leading research universities, Wisconsin is uniquely positioned to provide those solutions,” said Dean Amhaus, president and CEO of The Water Council. “This Resiliency Engine could be a true game-changer in terms of local economic development and assisting companies here, across the U.S. and globally adapt to the realities of climate change and the growing nexus of water and energy challenges.”

The grant is awarded through NSF’s Regional Innovation Engine program, meant to advance critical technologies; foster partnerships across industry, academia, governments and nonprofits; promote and stimulate economic growth and job creation; and more. At the end of the two-year Development Award, the Engine team will apply for a Launch Award of up to $160 million over 10 years.

“These NSF Engines Development Awards lay the foundation for emerging hubs of innovation and potential future NSF Engines,” said NSF Director Sethuraman Panchanathan. “These awardees are part of the fabric of NSF’s vision to create opportunities everywhere and enable innovation anywhere. They will build robust regional partnerships rooted in scientific and technological innovation in every part of our nation. Through these planning awards, NSF is seeding the future for in-place innovation in communities and to grow their regional economies through research and partnerships. This will unleash ideas, talent, pathways and resources to create vibrant innovation ecosystems all across our nation.”

The primary region for the aspiring Engine – from Milwaukee west to Madison and from northern Illinois to the Fox Valley and Green Bay – already boasts many of the necessary resources, including research universities, energy and water technology companies, and a strong manufacturing sector. The goal of the Engine is to align these resources around the theme of water and energy resiliency while ensuring the area offers a strong innovation pipeline and diverse, trained workforce to identify needs and quickly move solutions from the laboratory to the factory floor.

“Working with water is imbedded in Wisconsin’s DNA,” said Tom Still, president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. “Those same roots run deep in manufacturing and its relationship to energy and water use. The nexus of the three will result in innovation that can address climate change, confront rising energy prices, create efficiencies and encourage private investment. As a partner in the Resiliency Engine, the Wisconsin Technology Council will work to lever related resources across the state.”

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Wisconsin State Journal: Tom Still: With big goals in mind, National Science Foundation invests in 2 homegrown ideas

Wisconsin State Journal & cobrand logoSource: Wisconsin State Journal

During a fireside chat on the UW-Madison campus in March, a leader in the National Science Foundation’s newest and most hands-on program gave a tip of the hat to what he was seeing in his quick tour of Wisconsin.

“There’s talent all around this state,” said Erwin Gianchandani of NSF’s Technology, Innovation and Partnerships directorate. “And it’s incumbent on us to be able to find ways to be able to create opportunity for that talent … to create pathways for that talent to become a part of the STEM-driven workforce and economy of the 21st century.”

Roll forward a couple months, and NSF is making good on Gianchandani’s observation that Wisconsin has the tech, talent and market-based tools to help build a brighter future.

Capping a competitive process that began in early 2022 with a nationwide call for ideas, the NSF announced May 11 that two Wisconsin partnerships had been awarded $1 million “Type 1” grants through its Regional Innovation Engines program. Two-year grants were awarded to:

The Athletic’s Shams Charania reported yesterday that LeBron James played through the last few months, including the playoffs, with a torn tendon in his foot that could require off-season surgery. Skip Bayless and Shannon Sharpe react to the report.

A team led by The Water Council in Milwaukee to plan how water and energy can be more efficiently used by manufacturers and utilities, with goals of addressing climate change, confronting higher energy costs and levering private investment over time.

A group led by WiSys, a foundation that primarily works with researchers, innovators and entrepreneurs in communities outside Madison and Milwaukee, to model ways to make agriculture more sustainable and responsive to markets and labor needs.

A few million dollars won’t get all that done, of course, but if the two Wisconsin teams create interdisciplinary plans that can be applied statewide as well as nationally, the next stage in the NSF process would be $160 million “Type 2” grants to implement those ideas over 10 years.

Of the 500-plus applications for the Type 1 NSF grants, only 44 were awarded. The fact that two landed in Wisconsin — with its long history of water, agricultural and manufacturing innovation — speaks well of the state’s potential to apply science and technology to core assets in ways that can be adopted by others.

It also represents something that can be rare in society today, which is collaboration among groups and regions that might not always have a lot in common.

Partners in The Water Council proposal are the MKE Tech Hub Coalition, Marquette University, the Wisconsin Center for Manufacturing and Productivity, the Madison Region Economic Partnership and the Wisconsin Technology Council.

The 30 partners in the WiSys grant include the 13 UW System campuses, many private companies and foundations tied to farming or natural resources, the U.S. Geological Survey, the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. and the Tech Council.

By creating its new Technology, Innovation and Partnerships wing — the first new directorate in 30 years — the NSF signaled it was adapting to the times. Long known for its basic science research grants, the NSF resolved to become more attuned to markets, workforce needs, diverse communities and emerging national challenges.

It also determined to dig deeper for good ideas in places outside traditional tech corridors on the East and West coasts. Only two of the 44 Type 1 grants are based in California, for example, and six in the nation’s northeast states. The bulk of the selected proposals are east of the Rocky Mountains, in the Midwest or the South, and they address many tech-based challenges. Wisconsin is among a dozen states with two or more awards.

“In many ways, this is a generational opportunity,” NSF’s Gianchandani said during his March visit to Madison. “This is our generation’s Sputnik moment, and we’re not going to be able to solve it if it’s just a few of us. It has to be all of us working together on the same page to be able to get where we want to get.”

It’s good that Wisconsin has a few words on that ambitious page.

Tom Still
Tom Still is the president of the Wisconsin Technology Council.

“This is our generation’s Sputnik moment, and we’re not going to be able to solve it if it’s just a few of us. It has to be all of us working together on the same page to be able to get where we want to get.” –Erwin Gianchandani, National Science Foundation

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Cap Times: Autism expert wants Madison bosses to embrace neurodiversity

Economic Development Cap Times Logo

Source: The Cap Times

Haley Moss has had enough of the “tell me about yourself” question, familiar to just about anyone who’s ever applied for a job.

“If you ask me to tell you about myself, you’re not going to like the answer,” Moss told attendees at the Madison Region Economic Development and Diversity Summit on Wednesday.

“I would probably say, ‘Hi, I’m Haley. I’m an attorney and an author. I’m also very proudly autistic, and something you should know about me is I really enjoy playing video games, and Taylor Swift is going to be in Philadelphia next week, the same time I’m in Philadelphia, and I don’t have Eras tour tickets.’

“That’s probably not what you want to know about me, but that’s probably something I would tell you because that’s something I’m thinking about,” said Moss, an expert on neurodiversity and the first openly autistic lawyer in Florida. She flew to Madison to talk to representatives from local businesses and nonprofits about how to make workplaces better fit people with autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, learning disabilities and other forms of ‘neurodivergence.’

Such efforts were initially popularized in the tech sector, with companies like Microsoft purposefully recruiting “neurodiverse” candidates and creating an interview process tailored to them.

“Neurodivergent individuals strengthen a workforce with innovative thinking and creative solutions,” the company’s website explains. More recently, that attitude has been spreading to other sectors too.

“There is an actual business case for it, even though I don’t feel like there should have to be an actual business case to be good human beings and to make sure that we do our best to value everybody as human beings,” Moss said.

Still, people with autism often don’t find jobs that fit their skills. Autism Speaks, a nonprofit raising awareness about autism, estimates that between 50% and 75% of the 5.6 million U.S. adults with autism are either unemployed or underemployed. For college graduates with autism, the rate is yet higher, with 85% estimated to be unemployed — around 20 times the national average.

With today’s tight labor market, employers need workers now more than ever, but they’re not likely to hire many more neurodivergent workers unless they change their hiring practices — including ambiguous questions like “tell me about yourself,” which can be a minefield for the literal-minded.

“It’s so vague. I don’t know if you want to know about me outside of my resume… my life history, my work history or if you want some fun facts to see if we get along.

“Having interviewed for things enough times, I always feel like I’m going on a bad first date and I never know how the other person feels about me,” she said. “There are so many ways we can make this better.”

Instead, she suggests, managers should make their questions more specific and consider asking candidates to complete an assignment or submit a writing sample.

“If we actually get to show what we know, a lot of neurodivergent people thrive.”

Do you really need a ‘people person’?

Another way employers can promote neurodiversity, Moss said, is to reconsider what they’re looking for in job applicants. Some job ads say they’re looking for a “people person,” even if the role involves little social interaction.

Moss, whose books include “Great Minds Think Differently: Neurodiversity for Lawyers and Other Professionals” and “The Young Autistic Adult’s Independence Handbook,” describes herself as distinctly not a “people person.”

If she had her way at a work meeting, she’d skip the small talk, the introductions and the icebreakers and get right down to business. Eye contact would be optional — it makes her nervous. Knowing that many people use those kinds of social cues to judge whether a person is honest or attentive, she’s learned to stare at noses instead. It’s a bit like learning a second language, she said.

“I have learned enough neurotypical social skills to somehow survive this world,” Moss said. “A lot of times, people don’t know that it feels very unnatural to me. They don’t realize this is a performance of sorts that leaves me exhausted.”

Neurodivergent people are often treated as if they’re a faulty version of their neurotypical (majority) counterparts. To her, it’s more like the difference between iPhone and Android operating systems.

“They each have their own strengths and weaknesses,” Moss said, and people readily accept that an app made for one type of phone might not work on the other. But when dealing with neurodivergent people, Moss said, it seems that many people want to call tech support.

“The thing is, the phone isn’t broken, just like the person’s not broken. It just is different. Sometimes how we treat people is not as kind as we treat inanimate objects.”

Likewise, many people see a person’s disability or difference and jump to conclusions about the person’s abilities. Moss recalled going to lunch with a fellow lawyer who has cerebral palsy. The server asked Moss what her friend wanted to order. She told the server to ask him.

“It was very odd that it was assumed right away that I was (his caregiver), and not just two disabled lawyers trying to do the best they can.”

Accommodations, please

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), employers are legally required to make reasonable accommodations to allow an employee or qualified applicants to perform the essential functions of a job, unless that accommodation would cause undue hardship for the employer.

For a worker whose job requires them to answer the phone, that could mean providing a TTY teletypewriter if the worker is deaf or hard of hearing, Moss said. If instead the worker has autism, that might mean providing a script so that the worker doesn’t feel so anxious when the phone rings.

When Moss worked at a law firm, the bright, buzzing fluorescent lights (“the worst neurotypical invention to ever happen”) would give her headaches and distract her all day, so her bosses agreed she could wear headphones, use a lamp or turn off the lights in her office.

Such arrangements, Moss said, allow neurodivergent individuals to work in the way they need to, much as glasses or contact lenses allow others to see their computer screens or their customers.

And they often come at little cost to the employer, according to the Job Accommodation Network, which provides guidance on ADA accommodations. In a survey of around 3,500 employers who contacted the organization for advice, about half said the accommodations they made came at no cost.

Around 43% reported paying a one-time cost for accommodations, with a median cost of $300. About 7% of surveyed employers said the accommodations they made came with ongoing costs, with a median price tag of $3,750 a year.

Here are few more of the tips Moss offered for making workplaces more friendly to neurodivergent workers:

  • If a person discloses that they’re neurodivergent, avoid saying things like, “I wouldn’t have guessed,” which are based on stereotypes. “What do you think autism looks like?” Moss asks. “There is no one look to neurodiversity.” Instead, she suggests, ask the person how you can support them.

  • Encourage workers to give others tips on “how to work with me” to avoid miscommunication and put everyone at ease. Moss tells those she works with that she’s not a morning person, unprompted phone calls make her anxious, and she’d appreciate a reminder if she’s neglected to follow up on something.

  • Assume that your workplace already has staff who are neurodivergent, and look for ways to meet their needs.

  • Recognize the strengths that neurodivergent individuals bring to a workplace. For example, many people with autism are treated as “oddballs” for knowing a lot about a niche subject, but having specialized knowledge is an asset, or even a requirement, in many fields.

  • Implement universal design principles, which can make places and practices more accessible to all people, without segregating or stigmatizing.

  • Employers and individuals looking for confidential, expert advice on accommodations can contact the Job Accommodation Network by visiting or calling (800) 526-7234 for voice calls and (877) 781-9403 for TTY.

As the Cap Times’ business and local economy reporter, Natalie Yahr writes about challenges and opportunities facing workers, entrepreneurs and job seekers. Before moving to Madison in 2018, she lived in New Orleans, where she trained as a Spanish-English interpreter and helped adult students earn high school equivalencies. Support journalism like this by becoming a Cap Times memberTo comment on this story, submit a letter to the editor.

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