Gateway referendum aims to fill skills gap
ELKHORN Brent Wiswell had been a carpenter since 1985. All of that changed when the economy tanked and he was laid off in 2009.
The town of Sugar Creek man struggled to find work, deciding that a new career direction was in order. In January 2012, Wiswell started taking classes at Gateway Technical College. He has earned two diplomas and five certificates in welding and/or fabrication and hopes to finish programs in robotic and pipe welding by year’s end.
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But Wiswell said he’s enjoyed fortuitous scheduling and timing.
“I couldn’t get into a math course one semester because it was offered only in Racine, but otherwise I’ve been able to get everything in Elkhorn,” Wiswell said.
That hasn’t been the case for many other students in Walworth County, who’ve endured the added time and expense of traveling to Racine or Kenosha Gateway campuses, or others who have not enrolled because of the cost and distance.
Gateway officials have what they believe are answers to alleviate that and many other potential pitfalls as they attempt to help fill the skills gap between job creators and job seekers in a rapidly changing economic landscape: A $49 million project -- with an annual tax impact of $9.73 per $100,000 of assessed value -- that would involve adding to or renovating the physical footprint of all three locations while offering new programs and enhancing current programming.
Proponents are optimistic, despite the price tag during tough times, and say the positives far outweigh the negatives. District voters will decide the referendum’s fate on the April 2 ballot.
Wiswell said that, even though he will be done before the project would take shape, many other students could take advantage of any new and improved facilities and courses.
“I know they only have 14 welding booths, so only 14 people can take the classes, which usually fill up as soon as they open registration,” Wiswell said. “And they only have four spots for the robotic welding. There’s definitely a demand and some people are frustrated. So, it would be fantastic if they could expand it.”
The project features $13.59 million for upgrades in Elkhorn ($2.70 per $100,000), which would include expanding that site’s welding lab and building a new CNC (computer numerical control) automated manufacturing lab as well as veterinary technician, cosmetology, culinary arts and food quality labs.
Larry Paruskiewicz has been facilities manager at the Elkhorn campus for 12 years. He said the funding would offer innumerable possibilities for area students, and that would create a snowball effect.
“It would provide more job-specific training that is in demand in this area,” Paruskiewicz said. “One example would be in welding. The current shop was built in the mid-1980s … technology has passed us by and we need to catch up. And welding is a big program at Gateway.”
Paruskiewicz said that the 40,000-square-foot effort involves razing and replacing half of the South building. It also includes work between the North and South buildings.
“The original 1970 (South) building … there wasn’t an interest in high-quality construction,” Paruskiewicz said. “We had engineers and architects study everything and they said that it would take so much effort and cost so much money, that we would be much better off to start fresh and create a new footprint.
“This will save us in big ways financially,” he said. “A modern building will help us conserve in every way, whether it’s heating, lighting or cooling. We’ll cut our operational expenses in about half. Older buildings like these involve a lot of TLC.”
However, the project isn’t receiving that TLC from all corners, as this letter to the editor in the Jan. 22 Racine Journal Times stated: “No doubt the Gateway Technical College Board will vote in favor of sticking taxpayers with another $49 million worth of debt. We’ll soon be hearing never-ending advertising for the woe-is-me attitude of yet another bloated public institution as it tries to bleed your heart into approving the proposed referendum this spring. Oh gosh, here we go again.”
Read the complete story in the Feb. 3 print or e-edition of Walworth County Sunday.