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Partnership between Willmar, Minn., business, Ridgewater for employee training helps look toward the future

One of Willmar Fabrication's products is a sprayer that has been designed for spraying Roundup-resistant weeds and is marketed to cotton farmers in the South. With a shift to more of its own products, the company needs training and retraining of many workers. A partnership between Ridgewater College, Alexandria Technical College and the state of Minnesota will help accomplish that. (Tribune photo by Ron Adams)1 / 2
Angela Pomranke, in human resources with Willmar Fabrication, conducts a tour Thursday of their facility. A $49,777 Minnesota Job Skills Partnership Grant will help the company obtain training and retraining for employees through Ridgewater College and Alexandria Technical College. (Tribune photo by Ron Adams)2 / 2

WILLMAR -- As Willmar Fabrication shifted the focus of its business in the last year, the company found a need to find training or retraining for many of its workers.

A partnership between Ridgewater College, Alexandria Technical College and the state of Minnesota is helping the company do that close to home.

A $49,777 Minnesota Job Skills Partnership Grant will help the company and Ridgewater develop customized training programs for their employees. The company will pay for the remainder of the $150,000 project.

At a grant-signing ceremony last week, school, company and state officials talked about the importance of their partnership.

Angela Pomranke of Willmar Fabrication's human resources department said employees are excited about the opportunities they'll have in the program, which is to run through June 2014.

Willmar Fabrication will be providing training in manufacturing processes, engineering stress analysis, sales and presentation, leadership development and project management.

Training will be provided by Ridgewater and Alexandria Tech to the company's entire staff, including management, sales personnel, engineers, welders and assemblers.

About a year ago, the company sold its facility in Willmar's industrial park and moved to its current facility on 19th Avenue in Willmar, she said. The company has also started using two previously empty buildings in the industrial park.

"We are doing more of our own manufacturing," she said.

Willmar Fabrication designs and manufactures fertilizer and chemical application equipment and seed handling products. It started in 2005 as a metal manufacturer that did contract fabrication, welding, assembly and painting.

The company has shifted to sales, marketing, product development and manufacturing of its proprietary products, while continuing to do some contract work.

In a tour of the 19th Avenue facility last week, Pomranke and engineer Randy Pederson described some of the company's products. They include hoods for sprayer arms that allow chemicals to be sprayed between rows without spraying crops or to spray only over crops.

The company's broadcast sprayers are designed to keep drift and chemical use to a minimum, Pederson said.

Most of the hoods are marketed in the southeastern United States for use on cotton crops, Pomranke said. "We hope to expand to other markets and areas in the future."

The company's engineering staff has grown, she said, and they have started recruiting efforts to find another mechanical engineer. The company has several other products that are in the research and development stages.

The company does much of its steel frame work itself. It hires other companies in west central Minnesota to do some finishing work on its products.

Willmar Fabrication has about 50 full-time employees and will be hiring about 40 seasonal employees to work from September to March or April, Pomranke said.

It's also a company where people can move into other jobs over time, she said. She described the path of one employee who started as a seasonal production worker, moved to full-time work and then into a sales position.

"You are not limited to the position where you start," she said. "You can start anywhere in the company and have unlimited resources."

Pat Lang, professional development and manufacturing methods coordinator for Ridgewater's customized training program, said the college will be able to adapt the curriculum it develops for Willmar Fabrication so that it can be used in other programs.

Ridgewater has worked with Minnesota Job Skills Partnership grants before, she said, and "we have changed people's lives."

Ridgewater's Customized Training and Continuing Education Program trained 18,000 people last year, said Kathy Schwantes, dean of the program.

More than half of the training was done in contracts with businesses, and the rest was offered to the general public. The program can offer almost any type of training, she said.

Paul Moe, executive director of the Minnesota Job Skills Partnership, said the new partnership is "a win for all parties."

The 30-year-old partnership is entirely state funded. It has been supported by every legislature and governor in that time, he said, but it is a vulnerable program when budgets get tight. It was cut by one-third a few years ago.

For every $1 in state funds granted to a project, private businesses contribute $2, he said. Over 30 years, the state's taxpayers have put $150 million into the program, and Minnesota businesses have put in $300 million. The program has worked with companies of all sizes, with nearly three-quarters of the grants going to manufacturing, he said.

Linda Vanderwerf

I cover education issues for the West Central Tribune and have worked for the paper since 1995. I have worked in journalism since 1981.

Follow me on Twitter: @lindavanderwerf

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