Student interacting with Inspire platform

A student at La Follette High School in Madison uses Inspire to connect with area businesses.

With competition for skilled workers stronger than ever in Wisconsin, companies realize they have to do more than just hang up a “Help Wanted” sign on the door or post a listing on a jobs board if they want to hire the best and brightest.

Businesses that are most successful in attracting top talent are ones that take a strategic, long-term approach to recruiting and retaining workers, and part of that strategy involves engaging with young people while they’re still in school.

That philosophy is one of the key elements of a new statewide web-based platform that directly connects local employers to area high school students before they’re ready to enter the workforce full-time. The platform, called Inspire, virtually connects area businesses to their future talent pool through online profiles, virtual career coaches, and career-based learning activities for high-school students and educators.

Developed by Career Cruising, a global leader in career development software, Inspire helps educate students, educators, parents and job seekers about the current and projected talent needs of local companies. It also provides an opportunity for employers and communities to enhance existing work-based learning and career readiness programs by making it easier for students to engage in opportunities best aligned to the careers and career pathway areas of interest.

Wisconsin’s nine regional economic development organizations, with the support of the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation (WEDC) and the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, are taking Inspire statewide by using the platform in ways that make the most sense for companies and schools in their regions.

Depending on the region, Inspire could be used to increase engagement between businesses and students in several ways, including interactive messaging with local professionals, job shadowing, interviewing opportunities and internships. Each region is developing and managing its own Inspire infrastructure and developing ways to get employers and schools on board.

In south-central and southwestern Wisconsin, for example, students in more than 60 school districts now have the opportunity through Inspire to connect to nearly 540 career coaches as well as over 475 companies, says Gene Dalhoff, vice president of talent and education for the Madison Region Economic Partnership (MadREP). Altogether, companies in the Inspire Madison Region offer about 2,400 experiential learning activities for students and educators, Dalhoff says.

“By participating with Inspire, companies in the Madison region have the opportunity to take an active role in growing their future workforce,” says Dalhoff.  “And even though many students may opt to leave the region for educational and occupational opportunities after high school, there is a greater chance that they will eventually return to their home communities in the region if they forged relationships with local businesses and organizations while they were still in high school. Inspire makes those connections and relationships possible.”

Economic development officials throughout the state say Inspire has the potential to be part of the solution to addressing the workforce challenges of today and tomorrow.

“The reality in Wisconsin is that there simply are not enough working adults in our regions to fill existing and projected jobs, and the labor market is expected to continue to tighten,” says Steve Jahn, executive director of the Eau Claire-based Momentum West regional development organization. “Implementing Inspire in collaboration with other new initiatives as part of the state’s talent development and retention strategy will increase the number of people available to meet the job needs of our employers.”

But it’s not just about filling the pipeline with future employees. Inspire also provides students with invaluable real-life job experiences that will better prepare them for entering the workforce.

“There is no question that Inspire Madison Region has been beneficial for everyone involved,” says Gregory Granberg, the school-to-career coordinator for the Oregon School District. “Students in Oregon have done research on different careers and then used Inspire to quickly and easily reach out to professionals in the specific career area they are interested in, ask specific questions and even set up job shadowing.”

“Inspire is an important element in creating a robust experiential learning ecosystem in greater Madison,” adds Sherrie Stuessy, experiential learning coordinator for the Madison Metropolitan School District. “By joining schools with employers and professionals from across industries, Inspire affords students the opportunity to explore their interests and connect with their communities in ways that weren’t possible before.”

Companies interested in learning more about Inspire are urged to contact their regional economic development organization for more information.