Matt Urban just may be Blackhawk Technical College’s version of The Natural.
With the exception of a post-college stint that took him to a variety of jobs in Colorado, Alaska and Arizona, Urban’s business and education connections to the City of Monroe and Green County are plentiful. Now, after spending the past five years in three different roles at BTC-Monroe Campus, Urban has been named campus director.
In this position, Urban reports to BTC President Thomas Eckert and is a permanent member of the College Council. He is responsible for the overall administrative operations and public outreach at the Monroe Campus.
Urban began his BTC career in 2007 after spending spent 13 years as the Executive Director of the Monroe Chamber of Commerce and Industry. He also served as the Community Relations Coordinator at The Monroe Clinic and Operations and Programming Director for radio station WEKZ.
He is a 1983 graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater with an undergraduate degree in Speech Communication. In 2010, he earned a Masters of Science degree in Education at UW-Platteville.
Urban has been married to Rhonda for 27 years. He has two children, a daughter, Teresa, 25, who lives in Onalaska, and a son, Joe, 21, who is a junior at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville.
What follows is an edited transcript of a conversation with Urban shortly after he was named director of the Monroe Campus.
Q: Considering your personal background and your background at Blackhawk Technical College, is this new position a natural progression?
A: When we look at it in the terms of Blackhawk, it is.
I started as an adjunct professor, working specifically in the business and information technology area. As we grew, when we had 4,000 displaced workers in the area, the demand shifted to general education, specifically in the communications area.
I’ve taught on every campus. I started 12 different courses, so I’ve been very active in the classroom. As time went on, opportunities shifted and I started working with the Business Community Development division and went out and did some training for local businesses.
Then I shifted again. I worked with the Learning Resource Center, testing and working with students on preparing papers, resumes, and such. Then I shifted one more time to be the Student Development Specialist, which was a really great opportunity because I worked with many different areas, including recruitment, orientation, community development with workshops on abilities in and out of the classroom, marketing to provide some more visibility in Green County and lastly, assisting with some of the alumni activities. So looking at that, on the whole, it has given me a tremendous overview of the college. I have a very strong understanding of the mission of the college.
Q: Describe the role of Monroe in the BTC operation?
A: Blackhawk as a whole has tremendous opportunities and tremendous programs. Those are delivered through various divisions of the college, and those divisions reach out. One of those areas they reach out to is the Monroe campus. Geographically, it allows us to serve our district much better.
Green County is a little different than Rock County in the makeup of industry. We are very much involved with food products, so there are opportunities to do things that are in line with the needs of employers over there. We are very much an agricultural based community. We also have a few anomalies such as the Monroe Clinic with nearly 1,000 employees in a community of 10,000 and a county of 33,000. We have a big demand for skills in the health care industry, and that’s a big opportunity to provide that training.
Q: Go back a few years before you joined BTC, and consider your role with the Monroe Chamber of Commerce and your other community activities. How was BTC perceived then, and has that view evolved?
A: Interesting you should ask that. When I was with the Chamber, we were just starting to embrace economic development as a community. We had just started our Green County Development Corporation. We were just starting some great partnerships between some local chambers and local municipalities. Our new director at that time very much saw the role and opened our community’s eyes to the opportunities Blackhawk Tech provided in training.
When we were going out and looking at connecting with local industry, we could say that yes, we have industrial parks, good infrastructure and a good work ethic. But what we needed to have was a strong, trained workforce. So Blackhawk became a very important part of our team when we were sitting at the table with prospects. Because of that, the community and county began to appreciate what it had in its own backyard.
Q: The displaced worker of a few years ago now is evolving out of the technical college system. What is the future in Monroe if we are not dealing, thankfully, with a large number of workers who are suddenly out of a job?
A: Blackhawk has always had the ability to answer the call for its district. When we did have a large number of displaced workers, the focus for Blackhawk was to answer that call and expand class sizes, the number of class sections, to expand in any way possible in order to meet that need.
There were some unique alignments there because the benefits of the displaced worker were tied to the calendar. That means there was no difference in the number of cars in the parking lot whether it be fall semester, spring semester or summer. So our focus was external to meet those needs. Now we get to catch our breath a little and focus internally.
But the needs are still there. The needs are to share with the community the many different ways they can access the college. Often, the perception is you would go to Blackhawk if you wanted a certificate or a one-year degree or an associate’s degree. If you didn’t need something specific that had a beginning and an end, then you would go somewhere else. But there are so many ways to access Blackhawk, whether it is a high school student getting their first credits on their transcripts; it’s getting high school students aware that even before they go off to say a four-year college within the (UW) system, you can go right from the high school classroom into the (Blackhawk) classroom and get some of those general education requirements taken care of. We have an example here where a recent Monroe graduate is heading to UW-Platteville with 15 credits. This should not be the exception. It needs to be far more common.
It’s also connecting with our older workforce, our non-traditional students. They need to know they can come back for that certificate or one- or two-year degree, but they also need to know they can come back a la carte, to say that to do my job better I need to take this class to give me the extra edge and do more for myself and my employer. It’s to show that there are many different access points and many different ways to benefit.
I also see a future where instead of answering the phone to answer the call, we are going to be more proactive by talking to industries and seeing where we are going with training. To see that we have great alignment with what we are teaching in classrooms and the skills that are needed. I mentioned health care. For example, what is the Monroe Clinic hiring? Is it from our nursing assistants program? Or should we be looking at medical assistants? They use both, but where does Monroe Clinic see its growth and its demand.
(President Eckert) and I just took a tour through a manufacturing facility. We noticed that there weren’t plasma cutters but there were water cutters. So we need to shift as the businesses shift. Robotics is another big area in Green County. We have an industry that is expanding four times its current size and robotics is playing a key role.
Q: You mentioned high schools. What can Monroe and BTC do to attract the graduated high school student when it is competing with the two- and four-year UW system and even private colleges?
A: We can play an active role in career planning. That’s the key. The reason is I say career planning is that a lot of students will say I’m done with high school and it’s time to go off to a four-year college, and I can figure out my future after I’m there for a year or two. In a technical college, if you want to use it traditionally, it doesn’t work because you don’t have two years to figure it out. In two years, you should be graduated. So the students who come right into Blackhawk Technical College, they already have paused and thought about job fit, career fit and they know the path they are on. If we can have those conversations with high school students, then they can start to see how Blackhawk can be part of it.
If they are looking for a four-year degree and have that discussion with an academic plan in place, they can attend Blackhawk for two years and then enroll at a UW-Madison. The money you save at Blackhawk could pay your junior year at a four-year school. So it’s an access point. It’s also an access point that if there is a program you are passionate about isn’t offered at Blackhawk, it might be offered by schools that we have agreements with that would allow a student to enroll at Blackhawk. It expands the idea of access.
Our relationships with high schools are excellent. We’re even pushing that back a bit, by starting to talk to middle-school students about career clusters they might be interested in, job shadowing to do some research about what they might be interested in. We are asking them who has the job you would love to have and trying to put them in position to be able to talk to that person.
Q: Does being a Monroe native help your perspective about what Blackhawk has to offer Green County?
A: It does. But what was important for me was to be able to get away because it gave me an appreciation for what we have here. I came back by choice. I wanted to raise a family. I lived in Alaska, Colorado and the Phoenix area. I wanted to raise a family in a community like Monroe where you have the resources but also have the community to help raise your child. When I came back, I realized just how many assets we do have. It extends to education, and just how well the K through 12 system prepared me to go off to a four-year college.
But it wasn’t really until I began working with the Chamber of Commerce that I learned how important Blackhawk was and is at a time when we are shifting out of the traditional manufacturing job or how difficult it is to stay on the family farm, that there is a skills gap starting to come in. I also watched Blackhawk grow. It didn’t grow just to grow, it grew to meet needs.
Q: You’ve spent time in the classroom. You’ve been a communicator. Do you worry that now you are an administrator that you might get tied down in paper shuffling, and you’re shaking your head no at me. Why?
A: I’ve spent my life being in the communication industry for 30 years. I get great joy from relationships. I understand the importance of connection and communicating. Taking 30 years of work experience into the classroom made me a very effective teacher. I found teaching satisfying. I respected my students because they were not in a position just to focus on school. Our students have many things to juggle and school is just one of those things.
But I shake my head no because while I understand there is always an administrative role, it’s still about making those connections with staff, faculty and students. I continue to have those connections. It’s an opportunity for me to put back on the community hat and knowing that I am representing something bigger than myself, that I am representing Blackhawk Technical College.