END OF AN ERA: Center on Education and Work Closes its Doors

In 1964, two groundbreaking centers opened at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s School of Education: the Wisconsin Center for Education Research and the Center on Education and Work. Now, 54 very productive years later, we must say good-bye to CEW, which closed its doors over the summer.

“The Center for Education and Work and WCER have shared long and distinguished tenures ‘side by side’ in the School of Education for over 50 years,” says WCER Director Bob Mathieu. “While it is sad to see CEW end, we should celebrate its history of prominent work and, equally important, its impact on the professional lives of so many people in Wisconsin and beyond.”

CEW’s most recent director Mitch Nathan, a professor of learning sciences in educational psychology, applauds the legacy of the center, as well. “I was really struck by the long-term dedication of the staff of CEW, and the deep personal relationships they made with career counselors and job center offices worldwide,” says Nathan. “I have also felt that CEW was one of the strongest exemplars of how to achieve the Wisconsin Idea.”

It started with vocational education

Founded under a grant from the Ford Foundation, CEW was originally known as the Center for Studies in Vocational-Technical Education. “Back then, it was a highly regarded research unit devoted to vocational studies and career research,” explains Al Phelps, CEW’s director from 1990 to 2011. The center also dedicated much effort to training educators and career development professionals through its signature Careers Conferences, which it conducted for 27 years.

Notably, CEW created some exceptional career-planning tools for schools, job centers and adult job seekers that generated considerable revenue for the center. From books to CD-ROMs to a digital information system, these tools evolved with the changing times.

“As vocational education became more integrated into schools, we transitioned into a center that helped both students and adults in the U.S. with professional development through a career-information system called Wisconsin Careers that later became WISCareers in 2000,” Phelps says.  For nearly 10 years, students, counselors and teachers in 70 percent of the state’s schools—as well as all 16 technical colleges and the UW System campuses—used this career-information database.

“We continuously added new information on careers, salaries and employment projections, and organized it into searchable databases that high schools, community colleges, and universities would pay to access. It became a big part of what the center did,” says the former director.

CareerLocker is born

Ann Fillback Watt
Ann Fillback Watt

In 2014, this online career-information system became CareerLocker. Although CEW is shuttering, CareerLocker will continue under the leadership of Director Ann Fillback Watt as part of a new independent project at WCER called Career Training Development. Judy Ettinger will manage the professional development side, training career development facilitators through online and classroom programs, as well as through summer and fall institutes.

As for CareerLocker, Fillback Watt says the website has become an invaluable digital resource for both students and adults trying to find their calling. “Career Locker helps users of all ages go through the career development process of, ‘Who am I? Where am I going? And how do I get there?’”

The website features detailed information on more than 700 occupations, as well as a myriad of tools designed for users from elementary school through adulthood. The tools include self-directed assessments on interests, skills, and values; K-12 classroom curriculum for teachers and school counselors; job interview, résumé, and ePortfolio building tools; and links to job openings.

CareerLocker also helps the college-bound. It features comprehensive data on more than 6,600 colleges and universities, such as application deadlines, G.P.A. requirements, majors, and degrees. “We hear from a lot of parents how they wish they had known about this particular tool when they were helping their kids find the right college,” says Fillback Watt.

More than 506,950 users in Wisconsin and about 60,613 users outside the state have tapped CareerLocker. As one middle school teacher in Kettle Moraine, Wis., shares, “CareerLocker is easy for students to navigate, it is helpful information for their age and there is a ton of information for them to learn about careers, interests, schools and themselves.”

Strong partnerships here and abroad

Through the years, collaborations have been key to the success of CEW, which has welcomed enduring partnerships with many Wisconsin state agencies, such as the Department of Public Instruction, the Department of Workforce Development, technical and two-year colleges, and four-year colleges and universities.

In 2009, CEW went international and inked a $5 million, five-year contract with Singapore’s Ministry of Education to develop the country’s first interactive career information system,

“It was an incredible opportunity to take the Wisconsin Idea to a country that makes huge investments in education and continues to have one of the best education systems in the world,” Fillback Watt says about CEW’s largest client. She adds that the Singaporean government invited CEW to bid on the project after conducting a global search for a comprehensive career information system.

In a client feedback survey, 99 percent of 142 schools in Singapore said the customized ecareer portal was useful in guiding education and career choices for students in their schools. As one Singaporean student commented, “Ecareers helped me think about my achievements and strengths, and focus on subjects important for my future career.”

The Singapore project wrapped up last November, but CareerLocker continues its global outreach. Fillback Watt says she is now working with a private education firm in Australia to bid on a project with the government of Victoria. The project Down Under would be similar in scope to Singapore.

While it is sad to see CEW go, several staff members have been hired by other projects at WCER and already are working in new roles. It was due to the many, many employees who contributed to CEW over the past 54 years that the center earned respect and appreciation across campus. That’s a long time to make an impact, not only in Wisconsin, but also in the world beyond. Echoing a belief expressed by Nathan, and likely shared by all who have been associated with CEW, WCER Director Mathieu concludes, “The work of CEW exemplifies the Wisconsin Idea.”

Former CEW Director Phelps, now retired and playing lots of senior softball these days, shares his thoughts: “I think the lasting and most important legacy of CEW and CareerLocker is that we were able to take research and build good models on how to improve schools, practices and career guidance. Best of all, it has found its way into the everyday lives of teachers, guidance counselors and students.”

by Lynn Armitage