FENNIMORE — There are 370,000 students in Wisconsin’s Technical College System, which encompasses 16 technical colleges offering more than 300 programs. It’s Wisconsin largest system for higher education — with numbers projected to grow into the future as 54% of jobs within Wisconsin in the next decade are expected to require technical education and training, according to a report from the National Skills Coalition.

At the forefront of technical education in Wisconsin is Southwest Wisconsin Technical College, recently rated by Forbes as the top two-year technical school in the state. According to Derek Dachelet, executive dean of Industry, Trades and Agriculture at SWTC, a number of factors went into that equation, but the college’s graduation rate played a big part in their ranking.

Graduation rates at SWTC are three times higher than the national average, and through contact with students after graduation, staff are finding the majority are securing employment quickly. In fact, last year’s graduating class in the Ag Power and Equipment program all had jobs before they graduated this past May.

“Agriculture is a huge part of what we do at Southwest Tech because it’s a big part of our district,” Dachelet explained to a group gathered at the college for a “Dairy Huddle” last week.

Organized by Cooperative Network, the huddle featured presentations from staff at the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection; Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources; Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development; and team members from Cooperative Network. While the day had a large workforce focus, other topics covered included DATCP administered programs, water quality and livestock siting rule updates and a legislative update from Cooperative Network.

Deb Ihm, director of agriculture at SWTC, has been in her role for about three years, and said that the number of students enrolling in the college’s agriculture programs has increased two to three times since she started on campus. Agriculture programs have grown at SWTC over the years too, with a recent change from three offered programs to 13 programs within agriculture study.

“We did that to meet industry demand and the technicality the industry demands,” Ihm said.

Data collected and analyzed by staff prove this demand, especially in the tri-state region where SWTC is located. The most recent data collected by SWTC outlines 27,092 agriculture jobs within the region, with 5,101 job postings for agriculture-related jobs within any given year. While these numbers are above average for the nation, Dachelet said the number of agriculture jobs continues to grow in the college’s district, which includes all of Crawford, Grant, Lafayette and Richland counties, and parts of Dane, Green, Sauk and Vernon counties.

Workers in the agriculture industry in this region are also receiving compensation of almost $43,000 annually. And if they trained at a technical college in Wisconsin, they are leaving school with little debt as tuition at technical colleges is a third of what it costs to attend a UW school.

For some students at SWTC, their pursuit of technical education begins before they even graduate high school. The college offers dual credit, allowing high school students to take college classes and receive college credit before high school graduation. The college also offers off-campus coursework with Beginning Farm Management, a partnership with Cooperative Educational Service Agency, also known as CESA, that has high school students spending time on a farm and focusing on the creation of a business plan, balance sheet and other financial aspects of farm management.

Farmers who have been in the field for a few years but want to expand their skills have opted to enroll in Advanced Farm Management, which focuses on more in-depth financial analysis of their farm using software, inputting the cost of production and other management decisions.

The college also offers a certificate in Dairy Goat Herd Management, an online course that targets producers in the Midwest. People from all over the U.S. are taking this course, Ihm said. Those who take the course graduate with a baseline set of management skills and a further understanding of dairy goat operations that they can take back to their own farms, where ever they are.

Agriculture students who come to campus for classes study in two staple areas: Agribusiness Science and Technology, which is more industry and service geared; and Farm Operations and Management, which is more production geared. Within each area, there are several sub-areas of study, depending on the students’ career interests.

Ihm said when thinking about the size of farms today, having students graduate with an emphasis in one area of production agriculture, such as dairy, livestock, crops or agriculture mechanics, will better prepare them to enter the workforce. Having agriculture students learn about a variety of topics within agriculture, such as agribusiness management, agronomy and animal science, also prepares them to meet the demands of the agriculture industry.

Southwest Wisconsin Technical College has put a tremendous amount of funding into their agriculture program, with $535,000 invested in ag-related capital investments over the past four years, Dachelet said. Much of the investment comes in the form of technology, which staff and students need to stay on top of and to stay relevant in a changing industry.

Technology highlights on campus include a birthing cow simulator and a “grow-tainer,” a small building that students grow plants inside of all year round. SWTC also has 18 acres of educational crop grounds, where students are involved in fieldwork and data collection.

The college uses advisory committees comprised of alumni, recent graduates, industry leaders and staff to discuss emerging technology and practices to incorporate into classrooms to stay current with industry. The college has also developed partnerships with Case IH and John Deere to lease new equipment to the college at no cost, exposing students to the latest and greatest.

“It’s a really good partnership that’s cost effective and keeps us current. The equipment is brand new,” Dachelet said.

The college also has partnerships with local cooperatives that allow students to complete internships, supply guest speakers for classes and provide feedback during mock interviews. A partnership with DATCP has also allowed farmers to be trained in nutrient management as well.

While some schools are getting away from agriculture programs, likely directed by the data collected for their region, more schools than not are expanding their programs, Dachelet said.

“We all ebb and flow with out markets,” he said. “But I really am excited about the things going on in agriculture.”