How 3 MN execs see the state of vo-tech education

I've been covering efforts by Bill Symonds of Harvard to boost Minnesota's vocational-technical education program and give high-school grads a practical alternative to a four-year degree.

He has studied the issue and produced a report that called for, among other things, a greater role for businesses.

Last week, he gathered three businessmen and two education officials at a conference at Minneapolis Community and Technical College and had them discuss the business component.

The main idea I walked away with:

Minnesota's industries do work with Minnesota schools and colleges, offering students an array of formal and informal programs such as internships, apprenticeships and job-shadowing. But it's a scattershot approach that misses many potential high school students, who often don't get exposed to the trades in school. Government and the education sector need to be clear what they need from business, but also give them a say in crafting curricula that would produce skilled workers Minnesota industry needs.

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From the get-go, it sounded like business leaders recognize the problem.

David Brumbaugh, vice president of human resources for Children’s Hospital, acknowledged the coming need for more medium-skilled workers to replace the Baby Boomer generation that's retiring:

"Our workforce is aging. ... The objective is to develop talent here and keep it here. We need to find out what the (return on investment ) is in high school and colleges. We need to find out what happens to those students. We're not looking to have them come work (only) for our companies, but we should be looking to maintain great number of them."

Harry Melander of the Minnesota Building and Construction Trades Council said his industry does offer the traditional apprenticeships, but needs to beef up its relationship with colleges and high schools:

"We do have a connection, but it's probably not as strong as we'd like it to be. The connection needs to be much more formalized."

Dan Meyer, president of International Precision Machining in Waite Park, said part of the problem in attracting young workers has been the demise of high school shop classes, which used to do a good job of exposing students to the trades and prompt them to seek out apprenticeships and two-year technical colleges:

"The feeder system is lost. When I was in high school and took shop class, I thought, ‘Hey, this comes second-nature to me.' Many people in the ’70s learned a trade in the same way. But there’s less and less of that going on. If young people in middle and high school are not exposed to this, they’re never going to know about it."

Brumbaugh called for an assessment of the labor market and of industry's needs for the coming 5-10 years. He advocated redirecting funding away from programs in fields that aren't experiencing growth:

"It doesn’t mean we will walk away from areas of interest, but we need to make sure resources going to areas where need going to be."

Business could help shape curriculum and offer internships, training rotations and job-shadowing (as his company apparently does). He said business could also provide funding -- both monetary and in-kind.

"We can help line up ed system network with our network. ... There are a lot of resources out there (but) they’re not channeled very well. ... We're just not spending (them) as efficiently as we should."

So Symonds asked: "How do we get more companies engaged?

The panelists told him: Tell us clearly and persuasively what you need us to do -- and don't just make our role a token one.

Brumbaugh said:

"(Schools and state officials) need to give us a compelling reason. We need to participate in a meaningful way. Businesses often don't know how they can contribute. You need to be clear about what they can do."

Meyer echoed him:

"It seems to me that there are lots of (vo-tech programs and initiatives) going on. It needs to be boiled down and presented to the people who own or manage these different businesses. It’s been difficult to get your arms around it – who’s doing what, and what’s the right way to go. It needs to be boiled down to a common platform so people like me can understand it."