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Expand access to engineering degrees
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Wisconsin's economy is in the doldrums now due to the national recession. But when better times return, will Wisconsin businesses be able to find the skilled employees they need to recover and grow?

Unfortunately, when it comes to attracting and retaining high-wage employers, Wisconsin is at risk of falling even further behind other states and nations, partly because we don't have enough people with critical job skills. And one the most important skills is engineering.

Manufacturers, architecture/engineering firms, product design firms, contractors/construction firms, government agencies, telecoms, power utilities, and even retail companies all need engineers. But employers in small cities often find it hard to attract and keep engineers. Professionals they recruit from out of state tend to leave after a year or two because they don't like our Wisconsin winters or life in smaller communities.

One promising way to increase the number of engineers in communities outside of Madison and Milwaukee is to expand the number of locally grown engineers through the UW-Platteville's engineering access program.

This collaborative degree lets individuals earn an ABET-accredited bachelor's degrees in mechanical or electrical engineering through UW-Platteville at a campus close to home so they don't have to give up their jobs or move their families. The degree is offered at UW-Fox Valley in Menasha, UW-Rock County in Janesville, UW-Marathon County in Wausau and UW-Marinette, which all are part of the UW Colleges, the UW System's network of 13 freshman/sophomore campuses.

The program is a model of efficiency, using a combination of locally based faculty, streaming video instruction and a mobile laboratory to keep costs to a minimum.

Employers and community leaders are now urging that the degree be expanded to more UW Colleges campuses around the state. UW-Platteville would like to initiate the engineering degree at the UW-Sheboygan and UW-Washington County (West Bend) campuses and create a new mobile engineering lab to better serve students already enrolled at UW-Marinette and at UW-Marathon County in Wausau.

Many of the students in the program and on the waiting list are adults who are rooted in their communities with families and jobs. When they graduate, they are likely to stay in Wisconsin working for Wisconsin employers.

Local communities and businesses strongly support this expansion. Yes, it will require an investment from the state at a time of economic uncertainty. But, it will pay for itself in increased tax revenues over the years as employers stay and expand here in Wisconsin and as the newly trained engineers move up the pay scale.

For the sake of our future growth, Wisconsin should make this modest investment.

- David Wilson is the chancellor of the University of Wisconsin Colleges and the University of Wisconsin-Extension. The 13-campus UW Colleges offers an Associate Degree in Arts and Science and prepares students of all ages and backgrounds for baccalaureate and professional programs. UW-Extension includes Cooperative Extension offices in 72 counties and three tribal nations, 12 Small Business Development Centers and Outreach and E-Learning programs delivered via the 26 UW System campuses and distance-learning channels.