Appleton Podcast Features Dr. Chris Matheny

Appleton Podcast Features Dr. Chris Matheny

| By: Britten, Casey

Fox Valley Technical College President Dr. Chris Matheny was a recent guest on Appleton Engaged, a podcast that explores the people, organizations and resources in Appleton and the surrounding Fox Cities area. 

In Episode 41, published on March 21, 2024, Dr. Matheny talks about his role leading FVTC and shares personal stories about living and working in the Fox Cities. He also discusses the state of higher education, the value of career and technical education, and the importance of partnerships and community.

Hosts of Appleton Engaged are Timber Smith, Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Coordinator for the City of Appleton, and Andy Anaam, Communications Manager for the City of Appleton. 

Listen here:


Timber Smith: Hello and welcome to Appleton Engaged. I'm your host, Timber Smith, DEI Coordinator for the City of Appleton.

Andy Anaam: And I'm Andy, I'm the Communications Manager for the city.

Timber Smith: Appleton Engaged is a podcast that explores the many people, organizations and resources that make our community a great place to live, work and play. So whether you're a long time resident or just getting to know Appleton, join us as we learn more about our community together.

Andy Anaam: That's right. We are here to bring the stories of incredible individuals, organizations, and initiatives that are shaping the very fabric of our community. So who is our special guest today?

Timber Smith: Once again, we have a fantastic guest. I'm actually very excited about this. Just because this resource here is something that truly affects all of us in this region in so many ways. This week's guest is Dr. Chris Matheny, President of Fox Valley Technical College, or FVTC, as we all like to call it. How are we doing there, Chris?

Chris Matheny: Doing great, Timber. How are you doing?

Timber Smith: Really well. Are you ready to jump in?

Chris Matheny: I'm ready.

Timber Smith: All right. Please tell us about yourself and your association with Appleton and the surrounding Fox Cities region.

Chris Matheny: Yeah, so thanks for having me here today. I really appreciate the opportunity to be with you and to meet Andy; it's great to be with you, too. So as you mentioned my professional life, I have the honor and responsibility of leading about 800 or so full and part time staff who are members of the college, faculty and student services staff, and really all with the mission of getting individuals the education they need to further themselves and their families. I've been doing that work for about 20 years, the last three years or so, two-and-a-half years as president. I started my career at Fox Valley Tech as the vice president for student services, and then moved on to be the vice president and chief academic officer for about 12 years. So I've been hanging around Appleton and the Fox Cities since about 2004. I live in Fox Crossing with my wife and two kids, and we just love being a part of this community.

Timber Smith: Are you a Wisconsin native?

Chris Matheny: I am not a Wisconsin native. I grew up in Northern Illinois, went to school in Chicago and lived there for 6 or 8 years after graduating and got married. And then the Fox Valley Tech job came up on a job posting some at some point in my job search and I found my way up here to northeastern Wisconsin.

Timber Smith: Well, we're really glad that you decided to stay with us.

Chris Matheny: Yeah, I am too. It's a great place.

Timber Smith: Can you please share with us about Fox Valley Tech, whatever you would like to share?

Chris Matheny: Yeah. So there's a lot to share about Fox Valley Tech. It's an institution that's been a part of this community and this region since 1911. We were chartered as continuation schools. So think about what was happening around the turn of the century and individuals leaving school early, right. Mostly young men to go work in factories and in the Industrial Revolution, these newly automated things that that were happening right around the turn of the century and the recognition at that time was that there needed to be technical skills training for those individuals post high school, whether they left high school early or whether they completed high school. They needed those skills in order to advance in their careers and to provide better service to the industries that they were working in. So we've been doing this work for a very long time, I guess is my point. Since then, we've moved on from “vocational schools” to become colleges. We are one of 16 colleges in the state of Wisconsin, all under the banner of the Wisconsin Technical College System.

And the mission of the technical college system really is to provide education and training to help individuals advance themselves and their families in, by and through higher education. So we do that in terms of workforce education. We do that in terms of associate degrees, technical diplomas. We do apprenticeship training, we do adult continuing education. We do business and industry training for incumbent workers. Much like that situation I was talking about in 1911, we have about 2000 different industries come to us every year and ask us to come into their plant floors, their office spaces and train their current workforce on emerging skill sets so that they can both advance their own careers and be better servants to those businesses that they work in. And then we also do adult basic education. So for those individuals who have maybe not had the best of experiences in primary and secondary education, they can come to us and get GED or an HSED, brush up on skills and/or do English language training as part of our adult basic education work.

Timber Smith: What are some of the most popular programs in our region? I also want to ask, you know, it always seems like there's these great partnerships that are popping up with some of the companies in our in our private sector here. How does that happen too?

Chris Matheny: Yeah. So I'll answer the first part of that question first if I can. So we have a lot of really popular programs. And I think what most people want to know when they ask that question is what are the largest enrollment programs. So our manufacturing division is probably the largest by headcount number of students who are participating in that programming area. Business and IT careers are very popular. Health care careers are very popular, but somewhat limited at times because of teaching ratios and accreditation ratios that cause us to have smaller class sizes. So they're not always as populated, but they are very popular. And then we have service industry, careers… hospitality, culinary. And I'm sure I'm forgetting something and somebody's going to point it out to me.

But what I will say about the reason that it's so difficult for me to talk about what are our most popular careers is because of the partnership aspect that you mentioned. Each of our academic and technical programs are required to have an advisory committee that's made up of local industry employers, people who are working in the industry, people who need employees in the industry. Therefore, we're teaching skill sets that are in demand at the time that that students are coming in. So we're not designing programs based on simply what might sell to a student. We're designing programs based on where they can get a job, or how they can continue their education and transfer into one of our four-year partners, for example. So those industry partnerships and those partnerships with our four-year institutions are really critical, because what that means to our students is that they're going to be successful when they leave those programs, not that they have to design that success for themselves. But we've already worked that into the system so that for example, if you want to leave an emergency medical technician program or a firefighting program or criminal justice program or one of our manufacturing apprenticeships or IT career. There are jobs waiting on the other side of that.

Timber Smith: Yes there is. I know for sure that our police department works closely, our fire department works closely. And then I remember in the past, one of the ones that actually fascinated me and I heard this was done, maybe you can tell if it's true or correct me if I'm wrong, was the welding program was so popular that it went to 24 hours a day and it was on three shifts.

Chris Matheny: It did.

Timber Smith: And to make a change like that, to help meet the needs of our manufacturers in the region and the wants of our students… that's incredible.

Chris Matheny: It's a really good example. When we hit the recession in 2007, 2008, there were a number of individuals, mostly working adults, who were needing to go back and be retrained. And so a lot of desire and need for production welding at that point, and a lot of individuals who were coming out of paper mills and places like NewPage, when that situation happened and we were the ones who scaled up and got ready, in order for those individuals to have a place to come and get retraining so that they could go back into the workforce and earn money for themselves and their families. And yeah, with regard to the welding program and several other programs, there was such demand that we added capacity around the clock, literally, you know, almost 24 hours a day running welding sections so that we could get those folks in and out, get their funding secured for that retraining, and then get them back into these family sustaining jobs.

Andy Anaam: Chris, what are some of the features of Fox Valley Tech which sets it apart from other technical colleges around?

Chris Matheny: Well, there are a couple of things that I would say just off the top of my head set us apart. I was just in a meeting this morning, and somebody asked a question very similar to that about what’s unique about Fox Valley Tech and the success that happens at the college, and I would really point back to those partnerships, right? The relationships that we have in the community are long and they are deep, and they are necessary on both sides. So we can think about places like Pierce Manufacturing that we have a long and deep relationship with was part of the reason they were partners in the design of the Public Safety Training Center. Now that that center was built between 2012 and 2014 as part of a public referendum, again, with this idea that there is a need in the community not just to train police and fire, but to work with our private industry, because Pierce Manufacturing sits about a mile down the road from our Public Safety Training Center. They were driving out to Clintonville and a number of other places to test their pumps in a quarry on every fire truck, so that fire truck would get on the road for an hour a day and back. Now they come over to us, they contract with us to use the facility. So they're paying a part of that. We have a partnership with them where they are providing us equipment and, and they've shortened the cycle time on their pump testing. So they're going back and forth up and down BB and costing their customers less money, taking less time out of their plant. So what I would say to you about that, it's just an example of the way that the college really works to find these win-win-win partnerships.

Andy Anaam: So you talked about some of the adult continuation classes… are they expensive? What kind of trend are you seeing in the community? Is there a huge demand? Because sometimes people think, okay, I don't have a college degree, but I don't have the money to invest because I may get into debt. So post-pandemic, when we see a lot of people are dropping out of the conventional programs, what is the trend at Fox Valley Tech?

Chris Matheny: That’s a really good question. I think the trend at Fox Valley Tech mirrors a trend that's happening nationwide, and that is for individuals who are looking for workforce training and skills training to seek shorter and shorter certificates. They want these little quick bites of education that help get them the next job or the next promotion, or to move from the job that they are in into the job that they would like. It's really dependent on the individual what amount of investment that might take. Most of our students are part-time because nearly all of our students are working. And so in many cases, those employers who they're working for are helping to pay the tuition if they're moving up and around in their company. So if somebody would come to me and say, hey, I don't know how to pay for college, I would say, are you working? Does your employer have a tuition remission program? Have you checked with your HR and benefits folks? Many times, individuals just are not aware of those resources that are available to them as part of their benefits package. So I would suggest to everybody that they go take a look at that first. Have somebody else help you pay for it.

The second is that there is a federal financial aid system for individuals who are interested enrolling at least half time in a degree seeking program—and half time for a degree seeking program is about six credits or two courses a semester. So for most individuals who want to make a commitment, you can think about that as, 1 or 2 nights a week. That's how I did my a lot of my education was working full time and going to class a night or two a week. And with online and asynchronous learning, that becomes even easier. It doesn't necessarily mean that you have to travel back and forth. So for individuals, depending on their income or what assets they may have, there are grants and scholarships available through our foundation for part-time and full time students. So that's the second thing that I would suggest. And then if individuals need to or want to pay as they go, it's really very affordable. I would have to look up our exact tuition rate because it differs per class. But you can imagine that it's about $150 a credit hour. So for a three credit hour course, we're talking about just under $500, plus a book. Let's call the book, you know, on the high side with our electronic resources, etc. if you're paying full price, $100-150. So let's just call this all in. You're in for $600 or $650 for a three-credit class.

Andy Anaam: That's great because these are such affordable options. And sometimes people just don't explore it and they don't go to colleges.

Timber Smith: They just make assumptions sometimes, correct? And another thing I've noticed is that it seems like there's a lot of really great agreements being created where people can start at Fox Valley Tech and then pursue a four-year degree afterwards. Can you share a little bit about those opportunities or what's happening there?

Chris Matheny: So back to Andy's question. I think part of this has been driven, over the course of my time at the college, by the cost of higher education. There's a renewed emphasis on the cost of higher education. And specifically, our four-year partners in the marketplace have sort of taken what I'll say is the lion's share of the focus on that. Two-year colleges end up looking pretty good when you do a cost comparison, but we know that many of our students at some point in their career, whether it's their initial idea to go get a baccalaureate degree or whether they want to come and get a technical degree, go to work in the field, and then five or six or eight years down the road, when that promotional opportunity or job change opportunity comes along, they want to be prepared for that. We need to create a pathway for them to get from the front door of Fox Valley Tech to the PhD level or wherever they want to be. For most students, that's probably to a baccalaureate degree granting program. And so we have at last count, I think we were at somewhere between 60 and 70 specific transfer agreements with four-year partners that will allow Fox Valley Tech students in any of our associate degree disciplines to transfer those credits, most of them at junior standing, the vast majority of them at junior standing, so that they can do two years at our institution, typically about 60 credits, two years at a four-year institution, typically about 60 credits, and end up with a baccalaureate degree without having to start over.

And that's the really important part, right? For a long, long time, I think the knock on two-year education was ‘that's great, you can go get a two-year degree and if you want to go get a baccalaureate degree, well, you're going to start at zero again.’ And there's been a real receptivity on the part of our four-year partners like UW-Oshkosh and UW-Green Bay, Lakeland University, to accept our students at full junior status and get them the further higher education that they need. And the thing that I would say to your audience is that that doesn't have to be immediately sequential, right? That can be a difference of five years or 10 years or even more in some cases, so that individuals can go to school, they can get what they need now, and then they can take that next step when they're ready.

Timber Smith: Chris, can you please share a narrative that will help our listeners understand the importance of Fox Valley Tech?

Chris Matheny: Oh, gosh, I think I could share a thousand narratives.

Timber Smith: Yes!

Chris Matheny: Yeah, we’ll be here all day. I don't know if you want that. You know, I think two of the recent narratives… Well, you know, let me back up. You asked earlier what connects people to Appleton. How am I connected to Appleton, right? And I shared with you that I moved here in 2004 with what was then a nine-month-old in tow. My son is now 20, and along the way, in 2006 we were expecting our second child. And we have a daughter, Jillian, who's fantastic. She was born at AMC. We went to AMC and I was having a conversation with the nurse, really, who was taking care of my wife at that point in the in the pre-labor section. And I'm, you know, three years into this job at Fox Valley Tech and starting to realize how integrated we are, the work that gets done that we are in the community. And the conversation that I had with this nurse said, well, what I ask everybody is, where did you learn to be a nurse? Where did you get your training? And she said, Fox Valley Technical College. That was probably maybe the first moment for me where I recognized the absolute necessity of the work that we do. And nearly every nurse, firefighter, police officer, electrician, plumber, IT professional that I have asked that question to in the 17 years since has had either a personal connection to Fox Valley Tech or somebody that they work with has gone to Fox Valley Tech.

And many times what I hear from those who haven't is, ‘man, I, I really wish I would have started there. If I knew then what I knew now, I would have gone to Fox Valley Tech and started there.’ And so, what I would say to your listeners is just look around. Auto mechanics—oh I forgot our entire transportation division, that's who I was thinking of—ag, those folks who are responsible for keeping our cars on the road, keeping us on our feet, protecting our health and safety. The dental hygienist who does my checkup and cleans my teeth went to Fox Valley Tech. And so I run into people in the community all the time that have been touched by this institution. And the thing that's absolutely fantastic is they're all here. They don't come to Fox Valley Tech, get the training and then go somewhere else. They all remain right here in our community.

I wasn't planning on sharing that story, it was a little rambling, but the connection of the organization to this region is so deep and so tied-in that I think it's important, which is why the second story that I will share is about a friend of my son's who was a fine high school student, didn't really love, I don't think, you know, being in school, but really inclined to do things with his hands. His parents had white collar jobs and not familiar with the technical college system, and he decided he wanted to be a pipefitter. And so they came to me and said, ‘well, you work at Fox Valley Tech and you're kind of like us. You've got this white collar, you know, pretty traditional college preparation kind of job. What do you think?’ And I said he should do it. Like there's no doubt in my mind if I could get my kid to be a pipefitter, that would be great. Because here's how this rolls, right? He's going to go to work. He's going to earn money in an apprenticeship. They're going to train him and pay him while he's getting trained. He will come out of this apprenticeship with zero debt. With a skill set that he can use for life, and he'll be 23 years old, debt-free, having gotten paid probably at the end of this making somewhere between $60,000 and $80,000 a year. And if he decides he hates it, he can go back and do something else. So this idea that we have to decide who we're going to be and what we're going to be at a singular moment in our lives and never change, is where I think we put a lot of our emphasis and energy when it comes to choosing careers and choosing higher education. And the reality is we all need to be continuously educated through our lives and those things are going to change. And so I'm just really happy that Fox Valley Tech is able to help people, no matter whether they're eight or 18 or 80, to do that.

Andy Anaam: That is powerful.

Timber Smith: It is very powerful. Are there any upcoming initiatives, events or opportunities for people to get on Fox Valley Tech's campus?

Chris Matheny: Yes, I would say the best opportunity for individuals to get on our campus coming up is that we're hosting our Spring Open House on February 27 on our Appleton campus, and so that will be open to the public. No reservations necessary. 3 to 6 p.m. just come on out. If you're just interested in learning more about what programs we offer, if for you yourself for a child, grandchild, neighbor, friend, or just curious as a taxpayer as to what your technical college is doing in your community, come on out and visit with our faculty. Come see what they do. I think you'll be really amazed.

Andy Anaam: Is there anything the community can do to help Fox Valley Tech?

Chris Matheny: Yeah, so I thought about that. I mean, I think one, getting educated on what the options are so that when somebody asks you, what should I do with my life? The answer could be, I don't know, but go check out what they offer at Fox Valley Tech. I know they have a wide variety of options for you. So that's one thing.

I mentioned earlier, our advisory committees; we have, you know, 200+ degree diploma and certificate programs. Every one of them has an advisory committee made up of individuals who have a stake in those employment sectors. And so if people are interested in learning more about an area that they're already passionate about and working in, they should give us a call and see if there's an opportunity to either now or in the future, get involved in one of our advisory committees.

And then the final thing that I would say is I haven't listened to every one of your podcasts, but I know that, you know, the needs of individuals around our community are growing every day, and whether that's food insecurity or homelessness or transportation issues or childcare issues… all of those needs happen. And they happen with our students. As I mentioned before, we have scholarships available through the Fox Valley Technical College Foundation. So if individuals are wanting to help people take that next step and go to school, scholarships are a great way to do that. And our Foundation will take scholarships for our general scholarship fund, we have specific industry-based scholarships that individuals and companies can contribute to if they're so inclined to do that. And we'd love to be able to help them help other people get an education.

Timber Smith: Who can people contact if they would like to learn more about Fox Valley Tech, their offerings, or how to enroll?

Chris Matheny: I think the easiest thing to do is give us a call or stop by any one of our campuses. I haven't mentioned yet, we have campuses around the region, not only just our Appleton campus, but we have several facilities in Oshkosh. We have regional centers in Chilton and Clintonville and Waupaca and Wautoma. So we serve a broad geography. Whichever of those locations is closest to you, you should stop in and see whomever the smiling face is on the staff member there, and they'll help get you to the right place. will help you find those places and those individuals if you need to do that. And certainly, for guys who are my age, if you want to go old-school and give somebody a phone call, it's 1-800-735-FVTC.

Andy Anaam: So you see, listeners, you have all kinds of ways to reach out to Fox Valley Tech. And now is a time for shout out. So who do you want to give a shout out to?

Chris Matheny: Oh gosh, I'm going to do just a couple of big general shout outs. The first shout out is something that I mentioned in one of our Board of Trustees meetings. And so this is the start of the spring semester. We're recording this the end of January. Our spring semester started this week. So I'll just shout out to all of our students who've had the courage and the resiliency to come back and start again, continuing their progress toward their degrees and diplomas and making the change for themselves. And the second shout out is to our staff who make that all possible. None of this happens without those 800 individuals, both inside the classroom, outside the classroom, preparing our facilities, making sure that our students have financial aid. Those are the really critical things that, without them, our students don't get access to the education that will help them change their lives. So that's who I'd like to give a shout out to. And by shouting out to everybody, I don't miss anybody and then I won't get in trouble.

Timber Smith: Are there any things that we didn't ask you that you would like to share at this time?

Chris Matheny: I think you've covered a lot, so I appreciate the opportunity. I would just say that many people drive up and down Highway 41, especially in this part of our district and region and see Fox Valley Technical College and never come in the doors, right? Take an hour to come. Just walk around the campus. The doors are open. You can come in, you can poke around, you can peek around corners. You can look in classrooms and just be curious about what it is that your community and you as taxpayers are making investments in. Once you've had that opportunity, then I think individuals are better equipped to invest in both public higher education and public education in general. It is really amazing the number of people who say to me, ‘oh, I never knew you did that. I didn't know Fox Valley Tech did that.’ But it's incumbent upon all of us to get out there and appreciate the resources that we do have in the Fox River Valley and Appleton.