Worker skills shortage starts in high school

Staples-Motley High School juniors
Staples-Motley High School juniors (from left to right) Emily Israelson, Claire Roberts and Emma Miller play a trivia game at a booth designed to attract students into teaching. The three say they've long been encouraged that a four-year college degree is their best education option. They were suprised to learn that on average, manufacturing jobs are among the highest paid jobs in the state.
MPR Photo/Tom Robertson

If good jobs are going unfilled in parts of Minnesota, some people will tell you the problem starts in high school.

Too many young people don't get exposed to industrial technology careers available to them and thus have neither the awareness nor the training they might make good use of, say employers who are in hiring mode.

Both career counseling generally and shop classes specifically have declined in Minnesota high schools in recent years. Employers and higher education officials alike blame that for part of what they consider a skills gap.

That's one reason, in an effort to stimulate that exposure, Central Lakes hosts a career exploration day every year for high school students.

Last month it drew 2,200 students from 21 high schools in central Minnesota. The manufacturing industry in particular was well represented. There was a high tech welding simulator in one corner and a robotics demonstration in the other. There were kayaks, ATVs and snowmobiles on display, all made from parts manufactured locally.

Tyler McAllister loves this kind of stuff. The Pine River-Backus High School junior is a farm kid who's used to tinkering with machinery, welding and building things. McAllister wants to work in manufacturing, but he thinks most of his classmates wouldn't consider it.

"A lot of people are going to the more high-end jobs, getting away from the hands-on stuff, kind of blue collar work," McAllister said. "They're more into video games and that sort of stuff versus being outside building."

For those students, college is a logical step after high school. That's what Claire Roberts, a junior at Staples-Motley High School, plans to do. Her teachers don't talk about manufacturing, she said, so it's not even on her radar.

"We don't really hear about it," Roberts said. "It's not like a big topic that they like to talk to us about when we're talking about careers and stuff. They try to show us jobs that we can make a good living off of, and that could be part of it, why we don't hear of manufacturing a lot."

"We don't really hear about it."

In fact, there's good money to be made in manufacturing. The average manufacturing salary in Minnesota is more than $56,000, according to the Department of Employment and Economic Development. That's higher than average for most other jobs in the state.

Even so, over the past few decades, high schools have dropped many technical trade courses.

Graphic Packaging, a company in Crosby that builds packaging machines, needs technically skilled workers, but human resources manager Theresa Schermerhorn said it has a hard time finding them.

Graphic Packaging looks mostly for workers with a minimum of a two-year degree. Schermerhorn says she recruits across the state for people with a background in robotics or computer-aided machines, and for people who have electrical or mechanical skills. She says those skills are tougher to find because they aren't valued as much as they used to be.

"Parents want their children to go to college," Schermerhorn said. "That's been this last generation's push. You have to have a college degree to have a good job. And that's not true anymore."

"Parents want their children to go to college. You have to have a college degree to have a good job. And that's not true anymore."

Since 2006, Minnesota State Colleges and Universities have been sponsoring manufacturing-based summer camps for high school kids. MNSCU also sponsors annual robotics competitions that involve nearly 80 high school teams across the state.

But still, Ronn Redemske has trouble attracting students to the machine trades program he teaches at Central Lakes College in Brainerd. The program has room for 22 students, but right now only 20 are enrolled.

Even so, Central Lakes plans to double the size of the program next fall, adding classes in robotics, automation and plastics. The federal grant-funded effort is in response to the needs of regional manufacturing companies.

The rationale seems compelling: for those who graduate, job placement is nearly 100 percent.

Redemske has employers calling him from across the country, looking for graduates who can come to work.

"Last year I had them calling from as far as Alaska, down from Missouri, North Dakota, all over," Redemske said. "Industry needs us so bad we just can't produce enough. I can place these students many times over, very good paying jobs."

Redemske said his graduates typically move on to first jobs that pay between $14.50 and $20 an hour. Within five years many of his graduates will earn hourly pay of $25 or more, plus a chance at lots of overtime, he said.

"Industry needs us so bad we just can't produce enough. I can place these students many times over, very good paying jobs."

Why isn't there more demand to get into his classroom? It may be partly because of an opportunity gap in high schools. In 2002, the number of industrial tech classes in Minnesota high schools began to drop. That's when the No Child Left Behind initiative started shifting school resources toward the core subject areas of math and reading. Shop classes like machining, welding and robotics were reduced or cut.

"Those are considered elective classes in almost every school system," said Mike Lindstrom, a retired industrial technology teacher from Coon Rapids who is active in the Minnesota Technology and Engineering Educators Association. "And electives right now are on the endangered species list."

Lindstrom described what's happened as a "perfect storm." He says the shift in curriculum priorities, combined with big budget problems in many school districts, forced schools to eliminate technical courses, staff and equipment.

The Minnesota Department of Education doesn't keep track of staffing trends in industrial tech, but Lindstrom said his records show the number of tech teachers in Minnesota has dropped from more than 1,200 to around 750.

"So it's simply fewer of these kinds of courses being offered to kids," Lindstrom said.

Career counseling services have also suffered from financial pressures, and Minnesota ranks near the bottom, according to the American School Counselor Association. The state has only one counselor for every 771 students. That ratio is ahead of only Arizona and California.

One way to address the decline in high school industrial tech offerings is to use colleges and universities to offer students the opportunity to take classes on nearby campuses.

State Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius said such a plan would encourage European-style apprenticeships with local employers and allow high schools and colleges to share the cost of technical equipment needed for training.

"What it means is that high schools would work directly with college presidents and design programming that matches the workforce in that community," Cassellius said. "That's how specialized it is. They're really meant to meet the needs of the business community that is right there in that area."

Cassellius is working with MNSCU's chancellor and the Office of Higher Education on an initiative to redesign the transition from high school to post secondary education. The goal is to better align students' plans with workforce needs. The initiative would create personalized career plans for students, and provide them with more tools to explore careers and earn college credits before they leave high school.

Irondale High School in Mounds View launched a pilot program last fall, recruiting students who rank in the middle of their class and are better suited to one- or two-year programs. The program lets them work toward an associate degree at a nearby community college by the time they graduate from high school.

This year, 62 percent of sophomores at Irondale are taking college credit courses. That's double the number from last year.

Cassellius says the broader plan, which is similar to education models in Germany and Finland, would forge closer ties between high schools and local manufacturers and other employers, so that students have a clearer vision for their careers.

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