Shortly after he became a U.S. Senator in 2009, Al Franken toured the Alexandria Technical and Community College. He wanted to see how during the height of the great recession, Alexandria's unemployment rate was 2.5 percent lower than the rest of the state.

Franken said he came away impressed with the partnerships between local businesses and the college in connecting students with high-skilled jobs.

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On Tuesday, Franken returned to tour Alexandria Area High School and said he was once again "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. The school's career academies cover a wide range of job opportunities from business and engineering to natural resources and health sciences.

Franken's visit to Alexandria was the first of a statewide "Advancing Career Pathways Tour" designed to highlight efforts around the state where employers and schools have formed partnerships to help prepare students for jobs of the future and to address the nation's skills gap.

Franken said he would take what he gleaned from the tour back to his fellow lawmakers.

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

After the tour, Franken joined school teachers, administration, the school's business partners and students in a roundtable discussion. Franken said the current skills gap has left employers in Minnesota and across the country with millions of jobs they can't fill because they can't find people with the right training.

Franken said the old education model of finishing high school, going to college for four straight years and then working 40 years without any additional education is a relic of the past. Key industries such as health care and manufacturing are constantly evolving and the changes are occurring faster than before.

AAHS Principal Chad Duwenhoegger noted that the school's career academies at first raised anxiety levels because it was such a major change, but the students are realizing the benefits. He said that finding your career passion earlier in life is a lot better than waiting until the third year of college and saying, "Now what?"

Students told Franken how much they appreciate the career academies and the chance to work with local businesses beyond a typical classroom setting.

McKayla Petrie said that taking a lot of different classes through the academies was intimidating at first, but pushed her to try new things.

Keaton Kvale said that the academies allowed him to hone in on the careers he was interested in, get out in the local business community and make a difference.

Spencer Hockert said he liked working with the Douglas County Car Care Program and organizing a fundraiser for it - a walk-a-thon with the slogan, "We'll walk so that they can drive."

Drake Hughes said he enjoyed working with Douglas Machine and working hands-on with the company's different types of machines.

At the end of the hour-long visit, Franken said it was uplifting to see so many inspiring examples of an education model that works for the students, the school and local businesses.

"Alexandria is on the leading edge of things," Franken said.

AAHS ACADEMIES

After completing the Freshman Exploration Academy, students at Alexandria Area High School select one of three academies to enter during their sophomore year - Business, Communications and Entrepreneurship; Engineering, Manufacturing Technologies and Natural Resources; and Health Sciences and Human Services.