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Alex Tech feels demand for workers

Jodi Schmidt, a Head Start teacher, talks to legislators and others who attended Friday's tour at the Alexandria Technical and Community College. The college collaborated with West Central Communities Action to provide two Head Start classrooms at the college. (Al Edenloff / Echo Press) 1 / 2
Laura Urban2 / 2

As a member of the Minnesota State system, the largest provider of customized training in the state, Alexandria Technical and Community College has keen insights into how many workers are needed for which kind of jobs.

Right now, the phone lines are lighting up for more manufacturing workers, according to Laura Urban, the college's president.

"We get calls every day from employers saying, 'We need more,'" Urban told a group of state legislators last Friday. "We're getting really pushed in some of our programs to meet the needs of employers."

She listed welding, machine tool technology and mechatronics — combining electronics with mechanical engineering — as among the in-demand careers.

The legislators were at the college to see how it's meeting the state's workforce needs and to learn more about the college's capital budget request from the Legislature — $8.1 million for heating and ventilation upgrades, roof replacements, and enclosures on three wings, which would improve energy efficiency and keep rain from getting into exterior walls.

The Legislature started its 2018 session this week.

Those visiting the college included Republican state representatives Torrey Westrom of Elbow Lake, Mary Franson of Alexandria, Bud Nornes of Fergus Falls and Jeff Backer of Browns Valley. U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson, a DFLer, also attended, along with an aide for U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar, and Douglas County Board Chair Owen Miller.

Urban said the college was grateful for the money it has received from the state. She cited a $1 million workforce development grant, which provided the college with 12 scholarships of $2,500.

The college faces several challenges, Urban said, including:

• A declining population of younger people aged 18 to 24, a trend that's projected to continue until 2024. Urban said the college has avoided the 10 percent or more enrollment declines that some colleges experienced in the past couple of years and is "holding its own" with somewhat stable numbers.

• Maintaining technology and high-cost programs. "It takes a lot of money to stay strong," Urban said. Meanwhile, college tuition levels have been frozen for six years.

• A strong economy has led to increased competition from employers. "They want people to come and work for them now instead of going on to college," Urban said.

• Aging facilities. Some parts of the college are 50 years old, Urban said.

• Reduced state aid, which has dropped steadily since 2002.

• Significant faculty and staff retirements. "It's not easy to replace them," Urban said.

On the positive side, Urban said, the college is fortunate to have good partnerships with local businesses and industries, Alexandria School District 206, the Runestone Area Education District and West Central Communities Action.

Head Start partnership

The partnership with Communities Action was another reason for Friday's event. Communities Action placed two Head Start classrooms at the college, providing extended day care service for low-income families with children ages 3 to 5. Fifteen children are enrolled in each classroom.

The collaboration began this fall and is a "win win" for the college and Communities Action, Urban said. The college's nursing department moved to a new lab, giving Head Start an ideal location that includes a bathroom and an outdoor playground. Also, it helps the college because it can now offer some students quality child care for their children while they focus on their own education.

Even students who don't have children benefit because those in the early childhood family education or other programs that include interacting with children can now have the opportunity to do so right on campus, Urban added.

There's another benefit as well: "It's fun to see the children learning at a college campus," Urban said. "It demystifies it. College will not be a scary thing for them later on."

Missy Becker-Cook, CEO of West Central Communities Action, told legislators the Head Start partnership with the college is exciting.

The Head Start program is a success and is in demand, according to Becker-Cook. The Alex Tech location has a waiting list, she said. About 400 children are enrolled in Head Start throughout the agency's five-county region.

In 2016, 4-year-old children who participated in the program exceeded expectations for kindergarten readiness by 92 percent, Becker-Cook said.

Head Start represents 38 percent of West Central Communities Action expenditures — a total of $3.65 million, according to Becker-Cook. The agency's main source of revenue is the federal government, which provides 55 percent of its funding, followed by the state at 19 percent and in-kind donations of 14 percent.

For more information or to see if your family qualifies for Head Start, call the Alexandria office at (320) 762-8046.