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Listening session explores workforce needs, issues in engineering sector in rural Minn.

James Kleven works at his job Friday as a electrical/computer engineer at Nova-Tech Engineering on the MinnWest Technology Campus in Willmar. Finding qualified engineers willing to settle in rural Minnesota has proven to be a challenge for local employers. (Tribune photo by Ron Adams)

WILLMAR -- According to statewide figures, Minnesota is well-supplied with engineers.

But for many local employers, the reality is otherwise. Nova-Tech Engineering, which designs and produces specialized technology for the poultry industry, has been trying to recruit a software engineer for at least a year, says Jim Sieben, vice president and general manager.

"We've had a difficult time finding software engineers," he said. "We've had a difficult time finding electrical engineers. We've had a difficult time finding mechanical engineers."

Mary Warszynski, owner of Employment Plus, sees the same issue for many of the clients she works with.

Qualified engineers are out there "but they don't want to be in Willmar, Minnesota. ... Gathering them back to our area is the biggest problem," she said.

Firsthand observations like these are what a business and higher education initiative is seeking as it holds a series of listening sessions around the state this year.

By hearing from employers and communities, state officials hope to gain a better picture of workforce needs and what higher education can do to address the needs, said Dr. John Frey of the Minnesota Center of Engineering and Manufacturing at the University of Minnesota.

"We hope that these meetings here will help. ... It is all about partnerships," he said.

Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton last year asked the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system and the state Department of Employment and Economic Development to work together on workforce development. The Minnesota Chamber of Commerce also is part of the initiative.

Forty listening sessions are planned, starting this spring. More sessions will be held in the summer and fall, said Melinda Voss of MnSCU.

"The idea is to listen and then take a look at our programs and align our programs with the needs," she said.

Engineering has long been a critical piece of the state's economy, but the growing importance of technology has underscored the need for qualified engineers, from electrical and mechanical to environmental, civil, manufacturing and software.

According to statewide workforce findings, most of the engineering specialties are relatively well-supplied. Future demand is likely to be highest for software developers and system software engineers.

But at a listening session focusing on engineering last week at the MinnWest Technology Campus in Willmar, local employers said they frequently struggle to recruit engineers in all specialties.

Finding qualified workers willing to settle in rural Minnesota is an ongoing challenge, they said.

At Jennie-O Turkey Store, the most successful hires are those who have some ties to the region, said Robin Kopel of the human resources department. "Local is better," she said.

Suitable employment for a spouse remains a barrier for many candidates, though, and a shortage of night life is often an issue too, she said. "We're still hearing that."

Technology-based industry is growing at the MinnWest Technology Campus, but many of the region's graduates are unaware of the career opportunities close to home, especially if they've been away from the area for several years, Sieben said.

For industries like Nova-Tech, it's a double bind: They can't grow if they can't find good workers, but they can't bring in good workers if they don't offer job opportunities. "It really creates a battle," Sieben said.

The 20 or so employers and business leaders at the listening session agreed that the knowledge level of new graduates entering the workforce isn't an issue.

"The people we get technically are strong," Sieben said.

But because the engineering field is changing rapidly, it's critical to have employees who can continue to learn, he said. "The expectation for us is we are always learning."

Local employers saw a particular need for softer skills: communication, teamwork, accountability.

They said they're encountering more young job applicants who want to work daytime hours and have weekends off. "I think they have a different idea of what work actually is," Warszynski said.

Employers also are concerned about the engineering workforce of the future and who will replace highly skilled baby boomers once they retire.

"Who is encouraging young people to go into these careers?" Sieben wondered.

Reaching out to students should happen early, said Myles McGrath, director of the Dassel Chamber of Commerce. "If you wait till they've already made a choice, you're really kind of missing the boat."

Dialogue between educators and industry needs to be more purposeful, he said. "I think it's going to take more of a coordinated effort."

Frey said it's the goal of the higher education workforce initiative to keep the conversation going and to act on what employers and communities are saying. "This is really what we need to hear," he said.

Anne Polta

Anne Polta covers health care, business/economic development and general assignment. Her HealthBeat blog can be found at Follow her on Twitter at @AnnePolta.

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