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Officials looking to summit to draw attention to Minnesota employers as they struggle to find experienced workers

Assembly technician Stephen Huisinga works on a stack light Monday at Novatech facilities in Willmar. A stack light is part of a poultry processor used for infrared beak treatment, liquid injection, needle sanitizing and bird counting/loading. The manufacturing sector remains key to the state's economy, and to that end, an industry showcase is scheduled later this month to promote it. Tribune photo by Gary Miller1 / 2
Test technician Adam Bosch checks a poultry services processor at Novatech. Tribune photo by Gary Miller2 / 2

WILLMAR -- A manufacturing showcase in Willmar a year ago was so successful at highlighting the local manufacturing industry and exposing students to potential careers that it's being repeated this year on Oct. 26.

The state's business and education leaders hope to see more of these kinds of activities, which they believe will help spur the development of a critical resource -- trained, skilled workers who can fill jobs.

Innovative ideas, raw materials and markets can all exist in the local or regional economy, said Steve Renquist, executive director of the Kandiyohi County and City of Willmar Economic Development Commission.

"But none of that matters if you don't have the right quantity and quality of workers," he said.

To that end, the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce is hosting a summit today in Bloomington to address the preparation of the future workforce.

About 200 are expected to attend.

Amy Walstien, director of education and workforce development policy for the Minnesota Chamber, said the idea of holding a statewide summit grew out of the research and development being carried out by the state chamber of commerce to identify both practical and policy solutions to the state's future workforce needs.

One of the goals is to find ways the business community can become involved, she said. "We've started taking a look at what some of those creative ideas are ... Get the conversation going with businesses on what they can do to engage in workforce development."

Some local chambers of commerce have already started doing this, Walstien said. "What they're finding is that it doesn't take a big investment to reach a lot of kids."

It's a message that has been resonating with increasing loudness in rural west central Minnesota. At a forum on engineering workforce needs, conducted this past spring at the MinnWest Technology Campus in Willmar and hosted by the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities System, participants spoke of engineering jobs that have gone unfilled for more than a year.

It's becoming harder for some manufacturers to find qualified workers, partly because of the higher level of technical skills now required at many plants.

Census figures also show a looming regional gap in the number of younger workers, in their 30s to mid-40s, to replace baby-boom workers.

"We have found that if we're going to recruit the type of workers to grow the economy, we need to have a qualified workforce," Renquist said.

One of the goals of Kandiyohi County's upcoming "Discover Manufacturing" event is to start capturing the interest of future workers while they are still students. Through exhibits, hands-on activities and tours of some local manufacturing facilities, students can learn about the career possibilities and begin thinking about the training they might need.

Not all of these jobs require a college degree, Renquist said. "You use your hands but you use your brains in conjunction with your hands. There's an increasingly large number of jobs like that."

"We're hopeful that we can expose more students to the high-demand careers," Walstien agreed. "You don't necessarily have to have a four-year degree."

She said the preliminary findings from the MnSCU forums across the state showed another key ingredient: the need for "soft" skills, or the ability to function well in the workplace, follow rules and be part of a team.

"Having role models is important for students," she said.

Although participation by the business sector is crucial, the education system also needs to be involved, Walstien said.

Statistics show an achievement gap in the student population. Moreover, post-secondary enrollment figures do not always reflect the number of students who drop out without completing an academic or technical degree.

"How do we get them into the workforce?" Walstien said. "We need to graduate more of the students. We need to get more kids into the pipeline."

She and Renquist said there has been growing recognition that Minnesota needs to do more to address both current and future workforce needs.

"There's an awareness," Renquist said. "Part of getting things done is creating the awareness that they need to be done."

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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