ATCC bridges workforce gap in manufacturingThough unemployment remains high, Greater Minnesota companies struggle to find qualified workers for skilled positions like machinists or welders. It's an urban "bubble" phenomenon: for each hour that you drive away from the Twin Cities and into rural areas, manufacturing's workforce gap widens.
Editor’s note: The following story appeared in the January 13 eTrends Newsletter published by the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development.
Though unemployment remains high, Greater Minnesota companies struggle to find qualified workers for skilled positions like machinists or welders.
It's an urban "bubble" phenomenon: for each hour that you drive away from the Twin Cities and into rural areas, manufacturing's workforce gap widens.
Kevin Kopischke, president of Alexandria Technical and Community College (ATCC), says the problem starts early in the education system, with a lack of student exposure to manufacturing-related careers, so efforts to correct it must start there as well.
"We don't have enough pathways in K-12 to really give young people an opportunity to see what types of careers are out there," Kopischke said. "Our two-year colleges in rural Minnesota are the nerve center for job creation. We're the solution to the problem."
Alexandria Technical College is taking on several new projects to help connect young people to manufacturing careers. Last month, the college partnered with local companies to host 500 high school students on tours at manufacturing facilities. The initiative allowed parents and students to ask questions and learn about job opportunities in the industry.
The college is also rolling out a new apprenticeship program to help students gain practical experience at a local company. The program is a public-private partnership between the college and manufacturing businesses. Students have the opportunity to attend class while working in an area company.
To spark industry interest at a younger age, Alexandria Technical College hosts a summer camp each year for grade school students to learn more about technology. Students learn about the machinery and equipment used in a real-world setting, and apply their new skills by creating a machined-project.
Long one of the Minnesota's economic strengths, manufacturing remains a backbone of the state's economy. The industry employs 10 percent of Minnesota's working population, and pays more than average for wages, accounting for about 15 percent of all wages paid. Each manufacturing job also supports another 1.3 jobs elsewhere through suppliers and employee spending. In total, manufacturing accounts for almost 30 percent of all jobs in Minnesota, according to the Department of Employment and Economic Development.
Kopischke says manufacturing is a major strength in west central Minnesota's economy, specifically in Alexandria.
"Alex is a mini Silicon Valley for the packaging machine industry. We have about 10 internationally recognized firms that build packaging machines for companies like Frito-Lay and Kellogg," Kopischke said.
In addition to encouraging the next generation of manufacturers, Alexandria Technical College also serves incumbent workers who need retraining or additional skills due to the industry's ever-evolving needs. Through Minnesota Job Skills Partnership grants, the college collaborates with local businesses.
In just the last year, the college received $490,000 in grant money, which is matched dollar-for-dollar by participating companies. In total, almost $1 million will be invested in training local workers over the next three years.
"Our new chancellor, Steven Rosenstone, has put together a strategic framework," Kopischke said. "One of the most important components is to be the partner of choice to meet Minnesota's workforce and community needs. Rural regional colleges like Alexandria have to be tight partners with their communities if we want the economic vitality of rural Minnesota to continue to grow.”