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Franken tours RELCO plant in Willmar: Company paid workers to learn the skills they would need

U.S. Senator Al Franken, left, visits with welder Martin Munoz, who trained for the job in a customized program at Ridgewater College. With business booming, the manufacturing plant in the Willmar Industrial Park continues to need qualified workers. Tribune photo by Rand Middleton

WILLMAR — Martin Munoz of Pennock used to work nights at Jennie-O Turkey Store, and he was working at turkey farms when he went to Employment Plus in Willmar looking for other opportunities.

Wednesday, he was at his first day on the job at RELCO of Willmar after completing a specialized welding training program at Ridgewater College. He liked it a lot so far, he said.

Munoz is one of eight new employees trained at Ridgewater.

Others include Tyler Kotlowski of Granite Falls and Dominick Staab of Willmar. They started Tuesday and were working their way through some safety training Wednesday afternoon.

“I think it’s a really great opportunity,” Kotlowski said, and Staab echoed that sentiment.

Kotlowski recently got out of the Air Force. Staab completed the auto body program at Ridgewater but realized it was not something he wanted to do long term. He appreciated the opportunity at RELCO, too, he said.

 “This is exactly what we need to do,” said Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., after touring the RELCO plant. “We need to fill the skills gap.” RELCO designs, builds and installs processing equipment for the dairy industry all over the world.

Congress passed the first reauthorization of the Workforce Investment Act since 1998 in July, in a bipartisan effort. The authorization included incentives to encourage businesses and community colleges to work together to train skilled workers.

“A lot wasn’t done in July,” Franken said. “This was.”

The recruitment and training of the new RELCO employees was a joint effort of the company, Employment Plus, the Minnesota Workforce Center and the college, all in Willmar.

After his tour, Franken met with representatives of the organizations involved in the training.

Franken has been an advocate of businesses and schools working together to reduce the “skills gap” which can leave manufacturers struggling to find skilled workers for their businesses.

Since he’s been in the Senate, he said, he’s seen the need for partnerships to provide skilled workers where they are needed.

Senators from nearly every state and from both parties could support the legislation, he said, as all had seen similar skills gaps in their own states.

The right training can put people on a path toward better jobs, he added.

Mary Warszynski of Employment Plus said she had the idea for the specialized training and approached Ridgewater’s head of customized training, Sam Bowen.

She and Bowen began visiting with employers, and RELCO general manager Luis Marin signed on nearly right away. He said that he would not only participate, the company wanted to have its own class with eight students.

The Workforce Center and Employment Plus recruited people for the program. Warszynski said she interviewed 100 people looking for the right people for the job. She said she looked for good people first, and sought out traits like dependability, persistence and curiosity.

The company paid for the training and paid the students while they attended the three-week full-time training course.

RELCO founder Loren Corle said he believes the program will work to its benefit, but it will be studied to gauge the actual return on investment. He told Franken that he feels the cooperative ventures should be carried out without using public funding.

“There’s all kinds of ways to fund this type of partnership,” Franken responded, and he agreed that he liked to see private employers have “skin in the game.”

Many different types of funding mechanisms can be used, Franken said, including foundations and nonprofits, as well as public funding. He said public funding could be used to provide needed equipment for the colleges doing the training.

RELCO is proud to make its own investment, Corle said. “We find we’re sharpest here when we’re working with our own money and with local people.”

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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