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Wigfall: Two-year degrees offer quick path to success

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Policy fellow at Center of the American Experiment Catrin Wigfall, right, speaks with an attendee after her presentation at Alexandria Golf Club. (Rachel Kubik / Echo Press)
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Before Catrin Wigfall's marriage, her father was a little nervous.

He was worried that Wigfall, who held a bachelor of arts in political science from Azusa Pacific University in California, would be the main breadwinner, since the man she was marrying held a two-year degree.

“Four-year degrees are viewed as the standard in society,” said Catrin Wigfall, policy fellow at Golden Valley-based Center of the American Experiment.

She was able to convince her father that her husband would be a fine partner, with the help of some of the points she was covering as a part of her project at the Center, “Great Jobs Without a Four Year Degree.”

The goal of the project is to get young Minnesotans excited about post-secondary plans, whether that’s at a technical college, an apprenticeship or a one-year certificate. Especially if it’s not a four-year degree.

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Wigfall presented the project at the Alexandria Golf Club Wednesday, Sept. 25, as a part of Morning in Minnesota Breakfast Series. She has traveled all over Minnesota, spreading her message of the importance of a two-year degree.

Having the young generation enter the workforce can help with the current job shortage. “By 2022, our state is expected to have a workforce shortage balloon to over 270,000 open positions, in industries that really form the backbone of our economy,” Wigfall said.

Construction, manufacturing, information technology, health care and energy are some industries to pay attention to, she said. As baby boomers are retiring, young people aren’t jumping in to fill those positions, due to lack of knowledge or interest in those open jobs.

Young people can get excited when they realize they don’t have to sit in a classroom for the next four years after high school, but there is a lack of awareness of alternatives, Wigfall said. Society’s biases on getting a four-year degree do a disservice to young people because if they enter a four-year program and decide it isn’t for them, some will drop out, have a lot of debt and wind up living in their parents’ basement with no marketable skills.

The Center’s goal is to connect the young talent with businesses because everyone deserves to know all of their education options to find their dream job, Wigfall said. Fighting stereotypes, such as showing examples of women in health care or women as diesel mechanics, was another goal.

The Center has launched a campaign on social media that includes graphics and videos of real workers in careers that can be pursued with a two-year degree, aimed at young people in different life stages and their parents.

Panelists for the session at the Alexandria Golf Club included State Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen and Tara Bitzan, executive director of the Alexandria Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce. Bitzan said talking to parents about a two-year degree is just as important as talking to students.

“Life is completely different from when I was growing up,” she said. “You don’t see a lot of high school students who are active in other activities able to hold down a part-time job – unless an employer can be extremely flexible and utilize eight kids to fill one position.” Due to that, Minnesota’s workforce has taken a hit.

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The tide is shifting, Wigfall said. Employees from manufacturing plants let students tour their facilities to see that their spaces are clean and high-tech, getting rid of stereotypes that plants are dirty. Students also are able to witness products being made.

More than just a job shortage

Bitzan said the chamber often gets calls asking about the community, because callers are community shopping.

“We’re trying to sell our community, and that is something that’s brand new. That never happened before. Families were moving to communities based on a job. Now, they’re choosing the lifestyle that they want,” she said.

Steps to selling the community include detailing the assets Alexandria offers, such as health care, education, recreation and outdoor living, businesses and opportunities to be involved, such as volunteering.

Ingebrigtsen said he, state Rep. Mary Franson and former lieutenant governor Michelle Fischbach have been hearing issues about employment and jobs for many years. Child care facilities have stepped up and been willing to work with employees, which helps to keep people at work, he said.

Doc Hanson, an attendee, brought up the issue of the increasing need for home care for seniors in Minnesota.

Rebekah Summer, director of institutional research and communications at Alexandria Technical and Community College, said the college has the certified nursing assistant program with the high school, a practical nursing program, a registered nurse program and human services practitioner program, which is a position that works with people who are disabled and sometimes homebound.

Bitzan said a lot of businesses in Alexandria are in a position financially where they would like to expand, but because of the workforce shortage, are reluctant to open more positions when the ones currently open aren’t being filled.

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Employers need to put an emphasis on company culture in order to retain workers, she said. They also need to focus less on recruiting and make sure their company is a great place to work.

Starting early

Wigfall said sometimes school counselors don’t suggest that high school students pursue options other than four-year degrees because they themselves have a four-year degree.

But Alexandria Area High School does a great job showing students the other options, Ingebrigtsen said. “There is an immediate wage to be made with your hands and with your ability to get up in the morning and go to work,” he said.

The average wage for four-year degree holders in Minnesota is $25 per hour, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. CNC machinists and millwrights have average wages of $26 and $24, respectively, across Minnesota, according to the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development. Welders on average earn $20 an hour statewide.

Registered nurses and dental hygienists with an associate's degree earn an average of $35 an hour, and Minnesota carpenters, electricians and plumbers with journey-worker certification earn an average of $23, $29 and $33 an hour, respectively.

“There really is a need here in this community, and I think it has stepped up.”

The timing of having the new high school built and offering a program to students that lets them become a CNA before they graduate has helped, Bitzan said. Students aren’t shadowing CEOs or presidents of companies, they’re shadowing blue collar workers.

“This is important. This is something we need to talk about and focus more on,” Wigfall said.

Related Topics: WORKPLACE
Rachel Kubik is the education beat reporter for the Echo Press, but you will find her covering multiple other topics. She holds a bachelor's degree in journalism and writing-intensive English from Marquette University. Besides writing, she loves art and music and tries staying active. As a Chicago native, you will never catch her cheering for any Minnesota teams (sorry not sorry).
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