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Learn & Earn brings students, manufacturers together

Reed Loer (center) is a junior at Red Wing High School and one of the 20 students involved in the Goodhue County Learn & Earn Program. Here, Loer is shadowing workers at Red Wing Shoe, one of the three places he's works during his time in the program. Photo courtesy of Red Wing Shoe1 / 3
It's faded now, but Reed Loer got the chance to make his own boot while working at Red Wing Shoe this year. Loer, a junior at Red Wing High School, is a part of the Goodhue County Learn & Earn Program that encourages students to look into careers in advanced manufacturing. Matthew Lambert / RiverTown Multimedia2 / 3
Izek Gorden, Teagan Cyr, Marco Carbajal and Trent Dieman show off the mini-fireplaces with built-in Bluetooth speakers that they made while working at Hearth & Homes in Lake City. The four seniors at Red Wing High School area enrolled in the Goodhue County Learn & Earn Program. Matthew Lambert / RiverTown Multimedia3 / 3

It's not the most flexible or feasible time to be a high school student these days.

Decisions on furthering their education, enlisting in the military or finding full-time employment happen quickly, leaving many potentially to react poorly if they don't have a solid plan.

What if in high school, instead of having students look at broad careers, such as becoming a doctor or lawyer or teacher, they were encouraged to look at more specific areas of the workforce? What if they were given a chance to find out what they want to do for the rest of their lives before the pressure of high school graduation?

Goodhue County students are getting the chance to learn about advanced manufacturing jobs through the Learn & Earn Youth Skills Training program.

The Learn & Earn was established through grant funding from the Minnesota Department of Labor's Youth Skills Training Program. The program benefits the entire county, being one of five pilot sites in the state.

In its first year in the county, the program having a in place like this is vital to the future of southeast Minnesota, according to Red Wing Ignite's Burke Murphy. The program's coordinator, she said job projections are concerning, with estimates of 22,000 advanced manufacturing jobs needing to be filled by the year 2024.

"The whole point is for the students to see the depth of opportunity, the variety of advanced manufacturing companies that have what we would call 'new collar jobs,'" Murphy said "There's blue collar and there's white collar, but there's new collar jobs, which is that blending of traditional and technology that is demand right now."

What kind of career can I have in manufacturing?

Two of the 20 students learning about these new collar jobs are Teagan Cyr and Reed Loer.

Cyr and Loer are getting the chance to try out many different jobs, an opportunity they might not have had if the program didn't exist.

Cyr, a senior at Red Wing High School, doesn't necessarily know what she wants to do for a living. Next year, she will attend Montana State, considering possible careers in manufacturing and engineering.

During her Learn & Earn time at Hearth & Home Technologies in Lake City, Cyr got the chance to learn the company's entire manufacturing process. In addition, Cyr even constructed her own mini-fireplace that has a Bluetooth speaker inside.

It wasn't as simple as getting the fireplace and playing around with a few pieces either. Cyr said they had to bend the metal, paint it, use a 3-D printer, and package the fireplace. It's not an internship where students just sit on their hands, biding their time. They're putting in work.

Cyr's experience helped dispel stereotypes of manufacturing jobs, saying it's not "a dark, dirty place." Rather, Cyr is finding how sophisticated a manufacturing company can be, and moreover, how much opportunity there is for someone like her long term.

Loer, a junior at Red Wing High School, will get a chance to be in the program again next year.

Loer has worked at S.B. Foot Tanning Co., Red Wing Shoe Co. and SCS Elevators this year.

Like Cyr, Loer isn't committing to one path at the moment, enjoying the different roles he's getting to learn. What he does know, the satisfying process of creating something from scratch is giving him some ideas of what he might want to do in the future.

"It's really rewarding," Loer said. "You start with nothing and you end up with an entire product."

Prior to shadowing the workers at Red Wing Shoe, Loer admits he "had no clue what they were doing" saying that he has learned of so many different jobs and how much work it takes, for instance, to make Red Wing boots.

Michael Wendland, Red Wing High School's Work Based Learning coordinator, said the Learn & Earn isn't just a typical walk through of a business. It's all encompassing, learning about even the most mundane parts of a career.

"It's not a fifth grade field trip of let's go have fun and see the cool things," Wendland said. "We want to see the cool things but we also want them to see all the boring parts, too. How much paperwork we all have to do, how many emails we all have to write, all that kind of stuff that's embedded with the regular stuff, too."

It's the little things. Like leaving a voicemail.

The Learn & Earn does more than just place students at job sites. Students will have the chance to earn college credit at Minnesota State College Southeast as well as an OSHA 10 and Soft Skill credential.

Students can't miss a class while obtaining their certification, Murphy said. It puts a certain onus on the students to make sure they're responsible and see the whole process through.

Murphy and Wendland said aside from the o-nthe-job training, students get the chance to practice their soft skills.

Those are everyday traits that a worker would use on the job. Skills such as leaving a professional voicemail, a custom that some students may not have regularly done in their young lifetime.

Wendland said learning soft skills was at times difficult for students, but after having more conversations with businesses about expectations of their workers in the workplace, they were better able to address any concerns.

Even with something a simple as leaving a voicemail, the program is teaching the skills necessary for these teenage students to succeed out of high school.

More students, more businesses

Currently, the Learn & Earn Program has five school districts taking part and 12 employers participating.

The employers are Acrotech Inc., Automated Equipment, Central Research Laboratories, Gemini Inc., Hearth & Home Technologies, 3M Fall Protection, Neufeldt Industrial Services, Red Wing Shoe, SCS Elevator, USG, Valleycraft and Xcel Energy.

Murphy said she is actively recruiting more companies. Murphy said when she's met with companies around the area, there has been a lot of interest. Furthermore, Murphy said the employers that are currently in the program have not expressed any concern over the students who are working in their facility.

In two years, they hope to have up to 50 students in the program, according to Murphy.

State Rep. Barb Haley of Red Wing as been instrumental in the youth skills training bill in Minnesota. She has said that seeing the program coming to fruition in her community has been the most rewarding thing she's accomplished thus far as a legislator.

On March 14, Wendland, Cyr and Loer traveled to the Capital and spoke in front of the Jobs and Economic Development Finance Division to ask for continued funding for the Learn & Program.

Matthew Lambert

Matthew Lambert joined the Red Wing Republican Eagle in March 2018 covering school board, public safety, and writing features. Lambert previously wrote for the Pierce County Herald and River Falls Journal. He is a graduate of Winona State University with a Bachelor's degree in Mass Communication: Journalism. 

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