Mark Sandberg holds a bachelor’s degree in computer engineering and a good job at the Cable, Wis. office of Norvado, the regional cable TV, phone and Internet services provider. But with tech jobs, you have to keep learning to keep up with the technology and what your employer needs you to know. 

Big on Norvado’s agenda lately has been bringing the region literally up to speed through the expansion of broadband Internet services. The company turned to Wisconsin Indianhead Technical College’s Broadband Academy to bring Sandberg up to speed.

“I was moved to a new position as a network specialist,” said Sandberg, who had been working at Norvado since 2008 as a technician. “It involved some things I hadn’t done before, so they offered to enter me in the Broadband Academy to get the training and certification through WITC rather than doing it on my own.”

The story is one WITC is trying to replicate many times over through some changes in its broadband program made possible through a federal Department of Labor IMPACT grant. WITC started a telephone service program in 1973 which eventually became the broadband program in the early 2000s, serving the growing cable TV and Internet industries in Northern Wisconsin, which was behind much of the country in such services.

“In 2015, the Wisconsin State Telecommunication Association executive director approached us about online training for incumbent workers,” said WITC Broadband Academy Instructor Paul Kostner. “We developed a three-tiered program and worked with a WSTA committee to put together the courses and competencies.” 

About the same time, WITC had an opportunity to apply for a share of a federal grant focused on manufacturing and connecting technologies industries. The eventual $735,000 IMPACT grant award over four years allowed WITC and its partners in private industry to move forward on the program, which became the fully online one-year Broadband Academy at WITC in spring 2017.

WITC worked with Workforce Resource to recruit students for the Broadband Academy, focusing on unemployed or underemployed people in the 17–29 age range, though the Academy is open to all ages and incumbent workers in the industry.

Kostner explained that the three levels of the program start with the basics for someone with no knowledge about the industry and looking for entry-level work. Subsequent levels build on the basics and deliver higher skills. Industries can seek training for their incumbent workers to develop new skills and keep up on a rapidly changing industry.

“There is also a side track for high school students to do some career exploration and develop a pathway into the industry,” Kostner said.

The program has drawn 140 different students since its opening, some taking single classes and some the entire coursework for the three tier levels in which they can earn industry-recognized certifications. “Since it’s online, we’re picking up students from different states as well,” Kostner added.

For Sandberg, 32, a graduate of Michigan Tech University, the Academy is providing him with the training he needs at this stage of his career.

“I’ve been getting a lot out of it,” Sandberg said. “A lot of what I’m learning applies directly to my job, especially in troubleshooting. I am able to pinpoint problems more efficiently, just from a more well-rounded knowledge of the technology.”

The Academy is also benefitting students right out of high school like Gabe Colbeth, a 2018 graduate of Clear Lake High School. He planned to enter WITC’s two-year broadband program but was offered a better approach.

Colbeth, 18, landed a job at Baldwin Lightstream, where he works full-time learning what fiber optics can provide and upgrading coaxial customers to fiber facilities in the Hudson area while he is enrolled in the Broadband Academy. Baldwin Lightstream is covering his school costs while be builds his skills to become an even more valuable member of their team in an industry where it’s hard to find trained workers.

“I could go to work doing hands-on learning during the day, then go to the online courses for a better understanding of things that I can apply to what I’m doing,” Colbeth said. “Instead of having to pay loans, I can put the money in savings and start a 401K when I’m young. And once I finish the program, I should get a raise and be making pretty good money.”

WITC is grateful to all its community partnerships. Your support of the WITC Foundation is essential to student success. For information on how to contribute, visit witc.edu/donate.  

A nationally top-ranked college and a designated 2018 Military Friendly® School, WITC serves the educational and career needs of more than 20,000 residents of Northwestern Wisconsin each year. With multiple campuses, WITC offers career-focused associate degree programs, technical diplomas, short-term certificates, customized business training, and a wide array of courses for personal or career enrichment. WITC is a member of the Wisconsin Technical College System and is accredited by the Higher Learning Commission (www.hlcommission.org). For more information, call 800.243.WITC or visit witc.edu. WITC is an Equal Opportunity/Access/Affirmative Action/Veterans/Disability Employer and Educator.