A rapidly changing workplace requires a rapidly changing education system. Fortunately, the area has one, and it has been making a difference in the lives of people and in the local economy for a century. Chippewa Valley Technical College (CVTC) celebrates its 100th anniversary this year, and will mark the occasion with a centennial event at its Clairemont Avenue campus in Eau Claire Sept. 22.
With 61 programs designed to prepare people for the modern workforce, course offerings at today’s CVTC are quite different than they were at the “continuation school” that was the College’s forerunner. What has not changed is the mission to deliver applied education that supports the area’s workforce needs and improves the lives of students.
The history of CVTC and the entire state technical college system can be traced to the vision of Charles McCarthy, the father of vocational education in Wisconsin.
McCarthy believed that education was the key to a healthy society and would allow workers to advance to their full potential.
“The boy who is to become a bricklayer, while he is in apprenticeship, will be taught not only the mere trade, but also some essentials which will prepare him for life and a place in the civic body,” McCarthy wrote in his book The Wisconsin Idea. “He will be taught not only bricklaying, but architecture, buying and correlated subjects.”
McCarthy’s ideas gained the support of both industry and labor and led to legislation in 1911 forming the state’s first continuing education schools in all communities over 5,000. In the Chippewa Valley, that included Eau Claire, Chippewa Falls and Menomonie.
The first local Board of Industrial Education was formed in 1912. People serving on the board in its first decade featured some names still attached to well-known area businesses today, including J.P. Leinenkugel, John Huebsch and Bert Bartingale.
Classes started at Eau Claire’s First Ward School and in Chippewa Falls at the old high school in 1912, and in Menomonie at the high school in 1913.
Among the early classes were mechanical drawing, shop arithmetic, carpentry, sheet metal, cooking, sewing and telegraphy. English as a Second Language was also taught to serve the growing immigrant population.
“It was these early continuation schools that evolved over the past 100 years to become CVTC,” said Dan Clancy, current president of the Wisconsin Technical College System. “McCarthy emphasized education and training services that are still a core part of the WTCS mission: Opportunities for high school-age students, flexible learning options for those who are in the workforce and training that provides skilled workers needed by business and industry.”
Serving the communities
In the decades that followed, the schools developed a pattern of adapting its programs to the changing needs of the workplace and the students.
The College has been able to keep up with changing times by staying in close contact with business, industry and community leaders. Eau Claire’s school was the first in the state to form advisory committees, made up of employers and employees representing each important trade.
That system continues to this day, with industry leaders advising CVTC on how to adjust worker training to meet the latest needs. The model has worked for long-standing industries, and new industries created in the past 100 years.
As millions of automobiles were being built, the continuation schools trained the mechanics. When WWI and WWII broke out, workers were trained to manufacture the war equipment.
As paper mills grew in the Chippewa Valley, papermaking was added to the curriculum. Training in office machines became necessary, and as factories became more mechanized, industrial safety classes were added.
When President Franklin Roosevelt created the Rural Electrification Administration, what by then were known as Vocational, Technical and Adult Education schools trained the linemen, just as CVTC continues to do today.
Vocational school trained the technicians that put the early television signals on the air, and the repairmen who fixed the sets.
As computer technology came to the forefront, the training of programmers and keypunch operators became paramount. The days of punch cards faded away, and new technology took its place. What became known as District One Technical Institute kept pace and today trains the workers who become the high-tech information technology specialists so many area businesses depend on.
“I remember the whole technology explosion, where we went from everything happening in-house to expanding it to the community,” said Norbert Wurtzel, president from 1974 to 1994.
The Chippewa Valley Technical College name was adopted in 1987, but the mission did not change. CVTC continued to respond to the needs of the community. The continued efforts could be seen in the construction of a new health education center to house programs to meet the growing need for nurses and other healthcare workers.
“The only way to meet the needs of the area’s growing healthcare industry was to develop a larger health facility, including operational health and dental clinics,” said William Ihlenfeldt, president of CVTC from 1994 to 2007.
A new manufacturing center, which opened in 1999, is used to train workers on the computerized machines and robotic technology used in modern manufacturing settings.
The entire Wisconsin technical college system from its early days became a model for other states to follow. Locally, CVTC became one of the fastest growing colleges of its kind in the nation.
“That’s because we went to the industries in this area and said ‘What do you need?’ and we put those things in place to make it happen,” said Ihlenfeldt.
Current CVTC President Bruce Barker likes to remind people how CVTC graduates touch the lives of people throughout the Chippewa Valley every day.
“CVTC graduates build our homes, heat them in the winter and cool them in the summer,” he said. “Our linemen supply the electricity that lights our homes and runs the appliances that our welders and machinists helped manufacture.”
The mechanics who work on our cars, the healthcare workers who take care of our families, the office computer experts and accountants, and the police and firefighters who serve our communities received their training at CVTC, Barker goes on.
“CVTC helped train and educate the workforce needed for each generation,” Barker said. “We’ve helped students of all ages find successful careers. We were there to retrain displaced workers so they could reboot their careers. We helped make our workforce stronger and more diverse. CVTC’s history is the history of west-central Wisconsin.”