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Commentary: The solution to the challenge

Recently the Chair of the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities Board of Trustees, Michael Vekich, and Chancellor, Steven Rosenstone, published an op-ed piece in the Pioneer Press highlighting the two requests the colleges and universities brought before the Legislature this session—the first request focuses on bonding to support capital requests which includes $110 million to help maintain our current facilities and the second request is for a supplemental budget increase of $21 million.

The editorial argues that both requests are essential to maintaining and strengthening the state’s economy. As I’ll explain later, both requests are essential for Ridgewater College. So what exactly is the challenge? Let me cite one piece of the challenge focused on manufacturing. According to a study conducted by the manufacturing institute using Bureau of Labor Statistics data from 2015, “over the next decade nearly 3.5 million manufacturing jobs need to be filled and the skills gap is expected to result in 2 million of those jobs going unfilled. An estimated 2.7 million of those jobs are likely to be needed as a result of retirements of the existing workforce.”

That’s just one industry example, but we have a growing skills gap and a worker shortage across numerous industry sectors — most seriously in science, technology, engineering and math related fields. To continue the manufacturing example, these are good jobs. “An average manufacturing worker in the U.S. earned $77,506 in 2013 — 20 percent higher than what an average worker earned in other industries.”

Part of the solution to the skills gap and worker shortage requires that we educate all Minnesotans — we can’t afford to leave anyone behind and with 70 percent of the state’s population growth over the next 25 years coming from communities of color, we need to recognize how critical educating those citizens is to our future workforce. Yes, some of those Minnesotans are immigrants — and Minnesota was built by providing opportunities for immigrants and those opportunities have never been more crucial to the economy of the state. Currently immigrant-owned businesses generate $331 million dollars in net income to the Minnesota economy.

The next component of the challenge involves our facilities. In order to educate these Minnesotans we need to maintain our facilities and in some instances to make strategic investments to support industry’s needs. Ridgewater doesn’t have a capital project in this year’s bonding request, but we have critical maintenance issues that impact safety and our ability to serve students and key industry needs. For example, on the Hutchinson campus we need to improve ventilation in the grinding lab in the welding area and the entire area needs to be renovated and expanded to be able to meet changing student demand and curriculum changes required by industry. In Willmar we need to renovate areas like our collision repair program to train students to work on the growing number of vehicles using aluminum instead of steel.

It’s not all doom and gloom — we know what the solution is to the challenge — it’s an education that prepares people to fill those jobs and the facilities with which to offer the education that’s required.

I’m proud that in a few weeks Ridgewater College will graduate 873 students who have earned a degree or certificate or diploma in the past year, but that’s not enough. In order to provide people with the opportunity to fulfill their dreams of owning homes and raising families and generally becoming productive citizens, and to thus meet the workforce demands of the future, we need to support our colleges and universities by filling that 21 million dollar gap and investing in the maintenance and renovation of our facilities.

Please don’t misunderstand, I’m grateful for the Legislature’s support of our colleges and universities last session. However, our campuses continue to struggle with holding down tuition in the face of rising costs of everything from equipment and program renovation to people. There is no getting around the fact that education is a people intensive business. According to employers the skills employees are missing are “technical and computer skills followed by a lack of problem solving skills, basic technical training and math skills.”

We can educate people to build and repair robots and to develop problem solving skills and communication skills and all the rest, but make no mistake it takes exceptional faculty to accomplish it. The investment in our supplemental budget request is an investment in exceptional faculty and exceptional programs. That money is an investment in our students and ultimately in the future quality of life for the citizens of Minnesota. We cannot afford to be short-sighted.

The stakes are incredibly high for our state and for Ridgewater College. We must solve the workforce shortage; we must educate all Minnesotans for successful careers and meaningful lives; we must invest in quality, affordable, and accessible higher education. I hope you believe as I do that Ridgewater College is a key component in accomplishing that goal and if so, I’m confident that the Legislature will, too.

Douglas Allen is presdent of Ridgewater College. Ridgewater College is part of the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities public higher education system comprised of seven universities and 30 colleges serving approximately 400,000 students in 47 communities across the state.