Grow North meeting spurs conversation to strengthen workforce in northern Wis.

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RHINELANDER, Wis. (WSAW) -- Despite the current record-low unemployment rate, many employers in northern Wisconsin are finding it tough to attract and retain workers to fill in job openings.

On Monday, government officials at the state and local levels, business representatives, and members of Grow North discussed the issue at length. Grow North is an organization which has a main purpose for the northern region of the state.

"Ultimately it's to develop and sustain the area in northern Wisconsin," Grow North president Vicky Oldham said.

Oldham said the takeaway from Monday's discussion was that improving access to broadband and technology in the northern tier of the state could help alleviate the problem facing many employers.

"Everything's a distance away, and the lack of broadband in some areas might be a deterrent," she explained.

Gov. Scott Walker was one of the guest speakers at the meeting. He echoed what other participants suggested - giving more students tools in the classroom to make them better-equipped for the workforce after they graduate.

"It's why we put records amounts of funding into K-12 education," Walker said. "It means in our schools - it means with our fab labs which are some of the highest concentration here in this part of the state, it means building off of youth apprenticeship programs, college credit programs."

One tool that has the interest of Grow North is software used by some school districts in the southern tier of the state, known as Career Cruising. Through an account provided by the school, students can use Career Cruising to take career-related assessments, explore online career and college profiles, and get information about financial aid and employment.

Through that software is Inspire - which lets students use a customized information-sharing and resource-gathering environment where they can connect directly to regional employers.

"It allows our businesses to get their information out to students in an area that they're in all the time - in technology," CESA 8 Director for the Center on Education for Economic Development Lynn April said.

April, a speaker at Monday's event, said Inspire lets businesses give information about their company to student, and even use some employees as online career coaches to answer questions students may have.

"So students are not only doing searches on careers in general, but they can see if I'm interested in accounting, I can find out who in my back yard actually hires an accountant," April explained. "And I can talk online with somebody who is an accountant, so I can ask them some questions if that's what I'm interested in doing."

Given the interest, there's a chance the software may be making its way into the northern part of Wisconsin fairly soon.

"Workforce sees the value of finding their next employee, and we also know that K-12 students do well if they have an idea what they want to do after they graduate," Oldham said.

Grow North serves an eight county region, including Lincoln, Langlade, Forest, Oneida, and Vilas counties.