Editor’s note: The following article was printed in the Fall 2020 issue of Enterprise Minnesota magazine about a virtual roundtable that discussed how technical colleges are responding to the challenges of COVID-19. Because of space constraints, this article was edited to include remarks from Mike Seymour, president of the Alexandria Technical and Community College.

It’s hard to overestimate the impact the state’s technical colleges have on the manufacturing industry.

In a very real sense, they are training tomorrow’s workforce, tomorrow’s leaders, tomorrow’s innovators.

But like everything else in this new normal, the coronavirus pandemic has the education sector reeling and trying to navigate uncharted waters. With students returning to technical schools, colleges are trying to deal with uncertainty on multiple fronts, including enrollments, funding, and the evolving messages high school students receive about the value and future of work in the manufacturing industry.

Enterprise Minnesota hosted a virtual roundtable with high-ranking officials from technical colleges around the state. In a wide-ranging discussion, they revealed that technical colleges are very much prepared for what is sure to be an unusual semester, but a lot of questions remain unanswered.

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Enterprise Minnesota: As you approach the beginning of your first fall semester in the age of COVID-19, give us a status report on enrollments.

Mike Seymour: The college in the last five years has trended downward anywhere from 2-3%, I guess, on average. Manufacturing has trended a little beyond that, so both applications and acceptance of manufacturing students have been down and will be down again this fall.

Manufacturing represents about 12% of our newly enrolled students, so I don’t know where the final numbers will land. Last spring, we used the area manufacturers to help us teach a lot of the students and give them experiences they could bring back to the program to make sure as many students who can graduate on time did.

We actually took a chunk of our CARES Act money and created a bucket called, “Get Over the Finish Line,” and so in that bucket, we’ve been able to assist students financially in the areas of law enforcement and diesel and welding to come back over the summer and finish because they were in some of the program areas that couldn’t finish remotely. So they’ve been made whole financially, and everybody, for the most part, has come back to keep pace with their program.

Enterprise Minnesota: COVID has wreaked havoc on every sector of society. We’re guessing technical colleges haven’t escaped that. Have you re-examined or scaled back any program offerings because of COVID?

Seymour: No plans for any program eliminations. We’re looking at a couple new health programs for fall of ’21. But nothing being looked at for elimination in terms of current programming.

Enterprise Minnesota: How concerned are you about the state’s looming budget deficit?

Seymour: I inherited here a very robust program review process. It’s really a business metric that they put together for academic programs, which faculty here have, I guess, accepted. I think what they appreciate about it is they can see the profit/loss in their programs, and they’ve agreed to the measures in terms of how much appropriation is brought in and attributed to their program and how much tuition comes in and is distributed. And it shows the expenses and they can debate whether they should incur those or not.

But at the end, it says your program is either profitable or it’s taking a loss and losing for a few years, so something has to happen, whether that’s a revision, streamlining things, or a partnership with a high school — something the faculty need to embrace to keep their programs on the books. But a lot of that stuff had happened before I got here, and so it was really tight and the programs that are still standing here are pretty solid.

Enterprise Minnesota: One of technical education’s greatest success stories is the way it partners with industry to benefit the students, the school and the employers. What is the status of those partnerships? Are they as robust as they used to be?

Seymour: The manufacturing community here is very, very strong. And we need skilled workers. I don’t know if we’ll ever fully satisfy their needs. A number of our students come from greater distances, so they often come and they’re sponsored by a company in their hometown who’s paying their tuition. And so then they go home and they fulfill their obligation for that. But not all of them. And so what we’ve tried to do is engage our local manufacturing group and match the workforce development grants that were provided by the state in addition to the match. So $2,500 the first year coming from the state, a promise of the $2,500 scholarship coming in the second year from a local employer, and with the caveat that the students spend part of their summer in a paid job with that particular company.

We call it Workplace Learning Scholarships. We’ve been able to place a number of students in one of our local manufacturing facilities who are now coming to get their second year of training. The local manufacturer had the opportunity to get to know these students and their capabilities, and the students in turn are getting their tuition underwritten a bit. That initiative has been very successful for us, and some of the manufacturers who didn’t participate want to try to get in on this.

Enterprise Minnesota: Are high school educators and parents seeing a greater value in technical education? Is there a trend either way?

Seymour: It’s a message being pushed statewide and nationally. Are families getting it? Not sure...I don’t know if we’ve done a good job yet of explaining what exactly manufacturing all entails. We’ve tried to package it under integrated manufacturers. I don’t know if that helps or hurts.

I think sometimes just saying CNC (computer numerical control) helps people remember what it is more than anything. I think for us, it’s the way we talk about what is manufacturing, and then explain how those jobs have evolved and are very technical and computerized, and you work in clean environments, and the pay is good. I think the wheels are turning on that. I think we’ve made some progress. But I think we have a ways to go yet.