Syncing Workforce Skills with Changing Economy
By Doug Loon
Syncing workforce skills with changing economy – Visit any company in any industry in any part of Minnesota, and a common theme resonates. Minnesota faces the perfect storm for finding qualified workers. It’s the No. 1 problem I hear about when traveling the state.
Minnesota has low unemployment. We have a shrinking pool of workers as baby boomers retire. The lack of skilled workers often is aggravated by a lack of affordable housing, shortage of child care and transportation challenges.
At the same time, Minnesota has one of the widest achievement gaps in the nation that persists among racial and socioeconomic groups. While we have a talented and hardworking workforce overall, our state’s future economic success depends on ensuring all Minnesotans have a chance to participate in our economy and have an opportunity for success. Employers also must broaden their hiring strategies and explore available workers that have been overlooked or underused – for example, individuals with physical and mental disabilities or those with criminal convictions.
There is no silver bullet to filling job vacancies, and we’ll make little headway unless we are sharing relevant data on a timely basis with all stakeholders – students, education institutions and workforce training centers. Enter the Minnesota Chamber’s Business Education Networks, a proactive approach with our local chamber partners to better synchronize workforce skills with the needs of our changing economy.
The program was launched as a pilot project in 2015 with the Winona Area Chamber of Commerce, and since has expanded to our local chamber partners at Brainerd and Waconia. And they’re delivering results.
Winona: Thirty Winona High School juniors are participating in REACH, just one of many programs in the local network. Thirty juniors are enrolled in this student-focused career readiness program that emphasizes work preparedness, improved academic performance and internships. Students learn leadership, communication and professional soft skills through classes and out-of-school activities. It will be a bonus, REACH leaders say, if these students go on to work at Winona-area businesses.
Brainerd: More than 300 high school students in central Minnesota are enrolled in ProStart culinary courses, a joint effort among area resorts and restaurant leaders working with the Brainerd Lakes Chamber of Commerce, Central Lakes College, Bridges Career Academies and Workplace Connection, and Hospitality Minnesota. At the end of the two-year program, students can take a test and earn a certificate that one instructor says is pretty close to the equivalent of a tech school education. She notes, “They’re able to walk into a career, into a job and say, ‘Hey, I have taken these courses; I have learned the skills; I have the experience.’”
Waconia: Two Waconia High School tech instructors went back to school this summer – each spending a week at two local manufacturers. Teachers in the Workplace is a program of the Waconia Chamber of Commerce in partnership with the Minnesota Chamber’s Business Education Networks. The program was a win-win for the educators as well as the local companies. The instructors experienced the reality of workforce and work needs, plus had an opportunity to update their skills and guide changes in the school curriculum. Manufacturers seized the chance to encourage local students to pursue a career in manufacturing.
Every conversation we have with employers includes their urgent concerns about workforce needs. Business Education Networks seeks to mobilize employers to engage directly with students and help them understand what jobs look like in their communities, how to prepare in school for those opportunities, and how to access these opportunities.
We’ve made great strides in these three communities. We look forward to partnering with other local chambers to build on our successes.
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Doug Loon is president of the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce – www.mnchamber.com.