Minnesota senators look to Wisconsin for workforce advice

ST. PAUL -- Stories of Minnesota manufacturers finding it difficult to fill jobs abound around rural Minnesota, and some state senators are looking at ways to help.

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Three Minnesota state senators follow along on a handout Monday, Dec. 8, 2014, as a Wisconsin women tells them via telephone about a successful rural training program in her state. From left are Sens. Gary Dahms of Redwood Falls, Kent Eken of Twin Valley and Julie Rosen of Fairmont. FORUM NEWS SERVICE/Don Davis

ST. PAUL -- Stories of Minnesota manufacturers finding it difficult to fill jobs abound around rural Minnesota, and some state senators are looking at ways to help.

It may only take a little nudge to move businesses to taking action, a Wisconsin education leader Monday told seven members of a Minnesota Senate rural task force.

"There is a renewed interest in manufacturing," Ann Franz of Northeast Wisconsin Technical College told the group, partially crediting a state-college-private partnership.

She said that although Wisconsin appropriated $15 million for training and helping people find jobs, money to improve school facilities has come from the schools and manufacturers.

Democratic Minnesota Sen. Tom Saxhaug of Grand Rapids, the task force chairman, said that there already are some parts of the state doing what Franz suggests, but task force members said they may suggest at least two steps to improve trade education in the state:


  • Taking an inventory of all manufacturing education programs and equipment in Minnesota high schools and colleges.
  • Hiring a state coordinator for trade education to make sure it is available where needed.

"We may have to spend some money," Saxhaug said, quickly adding that "it will be in the thousands, not millions" of dollars.
The task force also will consider a bill providing state grants to improve manufacturing education.

Manufacturing plant officials across rural Minnesota say they have jobs open, but not enough trained workers to fill them. Many of the workers need skills such as welding before they can be hired.

Even if that worker gap is closed, many communities do not have adequate housing for the new workers. Saxhaug's task force also may look into that issue before the new legislative session begins Jan. 6.

Saxhaug said that, besides training, manufactures and schools need to deliver a message to students: "If you want to stay in rural Minnesota, we have opportunities for you."

About 18 percent of jobs in northeast Wisconsin's 18 counties around her Green Bay campus now are in manufacturing, about twice the national average, Franz said.

The key in her area is that training as low as in elementary school uses the latest equipment, like what students will use when they get jobs. Old equipment does little good in the classroom, she said.

"Manufacturing is different than 20 years ago," Franz said. "It is less manual labor."

In Wisconsin, school students sometimes operate their own manufacturing businesses and use those profits to buy more modern equipment.


Since the school, state and manufactures began working together, she said, the number of students enrolled in welding classes at area technical colleges shot up from 193 to 506. In machine-related classes, numbers since 2006 have climbed from 180 to 483.

Democrats and Republicans on the task force appeared to be on the same page on trade education. They talked about encouraging companies to collaborate like in northeastern Wisconsin, leaving the state with relatively limited involvement.

Sen. Julie Rosen, R-Fairmont, said it will be an "easy sell" to businesses to get involved in educating workers, but the state may need to first pave the way.

Sen. Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, said Minnesota schools such as Central Lakes College already are working well with manufactures to provide training.

"We can help," Gazelka said of state government, "but in the end it is a buy-in from the players."

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