With all the talk of a jobs-skills mismatch -- high unemployment even as technical and manufacturing jobs go begging -- the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities (MnSCU) system is trumpeting its push to meet Minnesota's work force needs.
Yesterday I joined MnSCU trustees and others in touring Dakota County Technical College and seeing some of its two-year programs that train students for jobs that seem to offer solid futures.
The programs I saw look impressive: General Motors automotive service, heavy construction technology, nanotechnology -- even wood finishing.
Instructors and industry reps described near-100-percent job-placement rates and starting salaries in the $40,000 range with room to grow. One even spoke of an internship program that enabled students to graduate free of debt.
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Industry reps also lamented employee shortages they can't seem to fill. Ziegler Caterpillar recruiting manager Eric Magnuson said his company has 44 positions open, and Thomson Reuters VP Craig Yolitz said he's having a "hard time" filling 75 in his booming business.
Yolitz said lack of new employee could be curbing company growth and making recruitment more expensive. He told trustees:
"If we can't find the talent (here), we'll have to look outside of Minnesota. We need to have a pipeline of people."
Just how big is the overall shortage in Minnesota? No one seems to no -- yet.
Here's one small measurement: Alexandria Technical College President Kevin Kopischke told me the manufacturers he deals with are asking for a third more students than Alex Tech can provide. (And Alex Tech's capacity looks quite limited. Kopischke said his college could handle only another 10 percent or so more students.)
That's why MnSCU Chancellor Steven Rosenstone said he'll be undertaking a two-month survey of Minnesota's workforce needs -- where the shortages are, in what fields, to what degree -- that will help the system figure out where to expand. He said the survey should start in April, and he hopes to begin "synthesizing the information" in June.
The challenge, as he acknowledged, is projecting demand for what is essentially a moving target. As Thomson Reuters' Yolitzas pointed out in a speech to trustees, business is constantly changing, and training programs must adapt.
And as this New York Times article shows, another danger is providing training that's not too narrowly tied to one business. If the company packs up, the employee isn't necessarily skilled for other jobs.
Rosenstone acknowledged that when we talked:
"We can't just focus on new (narrow) skills. We need to teach students broad skills for when their professions change."
I'll be looking at the survey results when they come out.