As the nation's manufacturers deal with a shortage of skilled laborers, a northeast Minnesota school district is planning to offer more technical training at local high schools to keep jobs, and the community's children, in the area.
Northshore Manufacturing in Two Harbors was down to about 45 workers in 2009. But as the economy started to recover, the scrap recycler and heavy manufacturer began to look for more qualified workers.
"One of the things we found was that younger kids who spent time in school didn't come in with the skill set we felt they needed," Northshore Manufacturing sales manager Uwe Kausch said of some recent hires.
Very few qualified people applied for the jobs. To meet production demands, Northshore Manufacturing hired workers who had potential but often required extensive training from an experienced employee. That meant the already short-staffed company had to pay two people who weren't working on the production line.
Manufacturers across the country have the same problem finding qualified workers. A 2011 survey found that 600,000 manufacturing positions nationwide are going unfilled, according to Deloitte and The Manufacturing Institute.
In a 2011 survey by the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development, 67 percent of northeast Minnesota manufacturers said there was a shortage of skilled production workers and that jobs were left open due to a lack of qualified candidates.
That resurgence of demand for skilled manufacturing workers is part of what drove the Lake Superior School District to provide more technical training.
Starting next fall, the district will offer training for welders and millwrights from high schools in Silver Bay and Two Harbors.
Lake Superior School District Superintendent Phil Minkkinen hopes the new programs, and a collaboration with Mesabi Range Community and Technical College (MRCTC), will provide a way for local kids to stay in the area and get good-paying manufacturing jobs after they graduate.
"A lot of our students are very capable people, but they choose to not leave here or get post-secondary training," Minkkinen said. He's concerned that students who stay in the community end up in jobs that often don't pay a living wage.
The MRCTC programs are just one more step in the direction of providing more technical training for students at Lake Superior School District. The district already hosts classes from the Applied Learning Institute (ALI), which instructs high school kids in northeast Minnesota in subjects like automotive repair and pre-engineering.
The institute was formed in 2006 to fill a void in technical training at schools across the region, said Applied Learning Institute (ALI) coordinator Roy Smith.
"Because of budget cuts, declining enrollment, the pressures of No Child Left Behind graduation standards, many of the technical education programs — because they're very expensive to run — were basically being swept out the door," Smith said. "Students weren't having an opportunity to experiment or even begin pursuing a career in technical education."
The ALI currently provides post-secondary industrial technology training to 21 high schools in northeast Minnesota. The organization's $1 million budget from the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board mostly goes to buy equipment at local high schools, much of which will be used by the Lake Superior school district's post-secondary training.
"It's not woods, wheels and welding anymore," Smith said. "This is hydraulics and pneumatics and process automation, process logic control. It is not the mining and manufacturing of the 1930s or 1940s."
Principal Joe Nicklay of William Kelley High School in Silver Bay said manufacturing has changed since he worked in the industry.
"That's one of the things that many manufacturers are saying, you talk to the people in the training and they say they used to look for this huge person that could just manhandle things, and now it's a lot more thinking," Nicklay said. "There's a good future for these people."
Nicklay said the new millwright and welding programs could serve juniors or seniors in high school or adults in the community. Students who want to take technical training as post-secondary enrollment option (PSEO) now must drive about 70 miles each way from Silver Bay.
The district is also working to host customized trainings for current workers at local manufacturers who want to improve their skills.
"Our fear would be that this is the next economic downturn because they can't fill these jobs," Nicklay said. "Do they start looking offshore to have some of that manufacturing done there again or can [we] just grow our own in Minnesota?"
Bill Symonds, the director of Pathways to Prosperity at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, said there's a mismatch between what the economy needs and what many schools are teaching.
"We see the situation where students might get a four-year degree and then end up working at Starbucks," Symonds said. "Yet we're not training the young people to succeed in jobs like manufacturing."
Symonds said it makes sense to continue to provide some students for college while also readying others for manufacturing and other trades.
"People are so wedded to the idea that we need to move in this academic pathway that they've really come to look down on vocational training, career education, and view that as a second-class option even though those jobs are often vitally important to the economy," Symonds said.
Northeast Minnesota has traditionally been a boom and bust economy. But for decades now, the population has been graying as young people left to pursue opportunities elsewhere. While Minnesota as a whole grew in the last decade, Lake County has lost population, according to the 2010 Census.
Northshore Manufacturing's Kausch grew up in the area. He said a lot of his friends left, not because they wanted to, but because they needed to find a decent-paying job.
"Between the mining industry and the manufacturing sector, there's definitely a need to keep that skilled labor here," Kausch said of the programs. "It not only makes our products better, but gives our kids the chance to stay here and raise a family."