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It may take a bus to bridge the skills gap

Craig Thompson

Bridging the skills gap has become an imperative for governors across the country as well as the president and Congress. Even when unemployment numbers were at their highest, we continually read stories about companies in Wisconsin that desperately wanted to hire but could not find applicants with the necessary skills. While the unemployment numbers are thankfully coming down, that story is still all too prevalent today.

For students who are flocking to our many wonderful technical colleges in Wisconsin in order to gain a skill or be retrained, getting there and back can be half the battle. In the Madison area, Madison College has gone to great lengths to bridge this divide. In 2000, students voted overwhelmingly via referendum to initiate a Commuter Services Fee, which provides a bus pass, subsidized parking and access to shuttle services between its campuses. Since that time students have taken more than 5.5 million trips on a Madison Metro bus.

I decided to hop on one of these buses last week to see for myself how students are using this service. I took the Route 6 to Madison College and back and talked to many students of all ages who told me that the bus pass makes going to Madison College possible.

On my return trip, I struck up a conversation with one man that stood out in my mind. His name is Ben. He is in his early 30s and is attending Madison College to become a computer numerical code production technician to operate heavy dye casting machines.

Ben lives in Fitchburg and takes the bus(es) to and from school every day. When he is not at Madison College in the morning, he is working at a bakery in Fitchburg through the night. Sleep comes in the form of a 3-4 hour nap in the afternoon. He said he owns a truck but finds the bus works better for him.

“Even getting here at 6:30 in the morning, I would have to park three lots away and walk,” he explained. “Not to mention that when I get done with school in the late morning or early afternoon, I am exhausted and probably shouldn’t be driving.”

That conversation left me with several observations. First, it is not pabulum to say there are a lot of incredibly dedicated, hard-working people in Wisconsin who are doing everything they can to get the skills they need to have a productive career.

Second, transit clearly plays an integral role, and not just for those who ride the bus. For every Ben that chooses to ride, there is one more parking space open for the student who is driving in from Baraboo. The fact that the students at Madison College have voted overwhelmingly to impose a fee on themselves to provide bus service, even when the majority of students still drive, shows that they understand this concept. It is time that the rest of us get on board as well.

Gov. Scott Walker declared March 3-9 Wisconsin Transit Week. Beyond that, take a moment and think about what our economy would look like if we couldn’t connect hundreds of thousands of people across the state to their jobs or job training or school. Think about what drive time would be like if everyone riding the bus was in their car. Think about trying to find a parking spot. Then answer the question — “Do you benefit from transit?”

Craig Thompson is executive director of the Transportation Development Association of Wisconsin.