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Column: Invest in a 21st century workforce

Wyoming Machine is making a big difference in Stacy, Minn. The company recently brought home the National Association of Workforce Boards' business leadership award for their work developing the local workforce and economy.

In Duluth, thanks to partnerships with local employers, 70 students are graduating Lake Superior College every year with the skills needed to fill high-wage, high-growth jobs around the region.

My staff and I have covered that and more with business leaders, educators and students from all across our state during discussions focused on local initiatives to prepare tomorrow's workers for the good jobs businesses are creating today.

We also heard about some of the challenges employers are confronting. In Owatonna and Cass Lake, representatives from regional workforce centers highlighted the trouble local businesses are having finding workers with the right skills for available jobs. Unfortunately, these companies aren't alone— last year's State of Manufacturing report revealed that 66 percent of Minnesota manufacturers had difficulty finding employees with the right skills for open jobs.

Registered apprenticeships help bridge that skills gap by matching workers' skills with those needed in high-demand jobs through a learn-and-earn approach. Students receive a salary while completing on-the-job training tailored to the business' needs and certified by the Department of Labor. That makes apprenticeships one of the most-cost effective workforce development tools in the country.

They're good for the companies, too.

For employers, apprenticeships provide a workforce with training tailored to their needs, reduce turnover and improve safety. And the focus on high-skill training will give American businesses a competitive edge in the 21st century economy.

So we need to double down on our efforts to expand these partnerships.

Two years ago, I successfully pressed for $5 million in grant money from the Department of Labor to strengthen apprenticeships in Minnesota. Businesses and educators have put the funds to good use.

In Spring Grove, LaX Fabricating is partnering with Minnesota State College Southeast in Winona to get more students trained to be welders and structural steel detailers. Roseau County Ford is working with local high schools to introduce students to the industry and prepare them with the skills they need to fill high-paying jobs as auto mechanics.

At Bühler Inc. in Plymouth, students at Dunwoody College of Technology receive pay and benefits while they learn and work. And in Pequot Lakes, Dane Walter changed course early in his collegiate career to do an apprenticeship with Pequot Tool & Manufacturing. Thanks to Pequot Tool's work with Central Lakes College, Dane — like the hundreds of Minnesotans who pursue apprenticeships — is well on his way to a successful career in the town where he grew up and where he wants to raise a family of his own.

Apprenticeships are a win-win-win: They align incentives for employers, educators and students. But we need to be doing more to support these partnerships. Despite clear evidence of the benefits, apprenticeships are underutilized.

I am working with Republican Sen. Susan Collins to change that. Our bipartisan bill, the American Apprenticeship Act, would provide funding to states to create or expand tuition assistance for participants in pre-apprenticeship and Registered Apprenticeship programs. The legislation would also authorize the Department of Labor to award competitive grants to states that have developed successful strategies to promote these programs.

That's good news for our state, where Minnesotans are already leading the way in bringing the benefits of apprenticeships to their communities and are poised to do even more.

Investments in apprenticeships are investments in our future. By 2018, it's estimated that 70 percent of all jobs will require postsecondary training. Just 40 percent of Minnesota's workforce currently meets that standard. And with more and more baby boomers getting ready for retirement, the gap between trained workers and high-skill jobs will only grow. By committing to strengthening our workforce, we're committing to keeping Minnesota's economy strong for years to come.

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