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Franken urges alternatives to closing 'skills gap'

During a tour of the Alexandria Area High School last October, U.S. Sen. Al Franken, D-Minnesota, talks with Superintendent Julie Critz and Principal Chad Duwenhoegger. The stop was the first one on Franken's "Advancing Career Pathways Tour." (Al Edenloff | Echo Press)

Most jobs of the future will require post-secondary training, but that doesn't mean every worker needs a four-year degree.

Minnesota and states across the nation face a growing shortage of workers qualified to fill "middle-skill" jobs that require some training beyond the typical high school diploma but not a bachelor's degree. This so-called "skills gap" leaves many manufacturing, health care, information technology and other companies struggling to find workers.

"You can throw a rock on the Senate floor and you will hit a senator (whose state has) a skills gap. Every state has this," Democratic U.S. Sen. Al Franken said Monday at St. Paul College.

Franken invited about 350 educators to an "Advancing Career Pathways Summit" ahead of his planned introduction of federal legislation that would support partnerships between K-12 schools and local industries.

Franken has seen those partnerships in action during three visits to Alexandria — a tour of Alexandria Technical and Community College shortly after he became a senator in 2009, a stop at Alexandria Industries in 2014 and a tour of Alexandria Area High School last fall.

After seeing the high school, Franken said he was "knocked out" by what he saw — a state-of-the-art school with administration, teachers and local businesses working together to help students start exploring a career path while they are in ninth grade.

"It seems Alexandria is always pushing the envelope," Franken said during that visit. "You're a model for a national solution — keep doing it."

On Monday, Franken said he hopes to build on his ongoing push to get community colleges to partner with local businesses to create training programs that fill the specific needs of their communities.

The idea is to get students interested in high-demand fields early and use partnerships between schools and industry to create training programs that lead to good-paying jobs. Those career paths could be an alternative to traditional four-year degrees and the debt that often goes with them.

Instead, students could work while they are training to help offset the cost of school. They could stack training certificates, technical credentials and even college degrees over time, using that education to advance their careers.

Given the need for "middle skilled" workers nationwide, Franken said he was hopeful his proposal would get bipartisan support despite the Trump administration's plans to cut federal education funding.

"This also is about America being competitive in a global economy," Franken said. "Everybody knows this is a path that has to be followed."

Minnesota already encourages partnerships between schools and local industries through grants and other incentives. Budget proposals under consideration by the state Legislature would increase support for those types of partnerships.

In addition, the Center for the American Experiment, a conservative think tank, will kick off a two-year effort Wednesday to increase awareness of education and employment alternatives to four-year degrees.

Al Edenloff of the Echo Press contributed to this report.