Just how big a problem is Minnesota's 'skills gap'?

Filling a mold
Workers at the Lakeland Mold Co., in Brainerd, Minn., fill a mold with molten aluminum on Wednesday, March 7, 2013. The resulting mold will be paired with others to create a product for a plastics company. Lakeland Mold, which employs 83 workers, expects to see an increased demand and declining supply of skilled welders and manual machinists in the future, according to human resource director Stephen Lackner.
Ann Arbor Miller for MPR

Does Minnesota have a skills gap?

In economic development circles the past few years it's been an article of faith that, yes, the state's economy is jeopardized by demographic, education and economic trends that will leave good jobs unfilled because the people who could take them don't have the right qualifications.

Employers have complained they can't find skilled workers. Higher education officials have launched wide-ranging efforts to fine tune their vocational offerings. A much-cited national study put Minnesota near the top in the portion of its jobs - 70 percent, it said -- that will require postsecondary education. It suggested the state's residents will fall short.

Then last month, the state's Department of Employment and Economic Development reported on a study it conducted of 1,500 job openings in 2012. The picture it found is more complex than many have thought.

Many employers do indeed have difficulty filling positions but often for reasons only partly attributable to lack of skilled workers. Uncompetitive wages, undesirable locations and work shifts and even poorly working electronic job applications all are contributing as well.

The department's study focused on nursing, industrial engineering and manufacturing production in Minnesota for now because those are occupational groups in which employers say they've struggled to find workers.

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In fact, the survey found that in those occupations just one in three jobs that employers considered hard to fill present difficulty solely because of a lack of skills in the available workforce. In addition, sometimes when employers complained of lack of "skilled" workers, they really meant lack of "experienced" workers.

That, in turn, suggests that the skills employers want aren't simply the hard skills like computer knowledge or welding abilities, but also "soft" skills like the ability to work in teams or to adapt to new work or even simply to get to work on time.

DEED intends to repeat its survey, broadening it to other occupations as well.

"I think the results of this survey and a lot of other studies that are coming out on this issue suggest a much broader set of challenges and a much more complex set of issues than simply this lack of qualified candidates," said Steve Hine, research director at DEED.

Pockets of mismatches do indeed exist between jobs available and worker skills, particularly in manufacturing, Hine concluded.

Analyzing and fixing those gaps and addressing other aspects of difficult-to-fill jobs is a complicated task involving the state, higher education, high schools, cities, private training organizations and, of course, employers themselves.

One manufacturing company that is clamoring for workers is Lakeland Mold in Brainerd's industrial park. Workers there use high tech machines to fabricate molds for a wide range of plastic parts.

Lakeland employs about 85 people, and company officials say they would hire five more today if they could find the skills they need. That's primarily computer-aided machinists or people with an aptitude for math and making things with their hands.

Human resources manager Steve Lackner says finding skilled employees is getting tougher. He thinks high schools haven't encouraged kids to go into the industrial trades.

"Somewhere in the past, and I don't know when it was, you started to look down on the trades, that was a bad place to go," Lackner said. "To be successful you have to go to college. That's not the case. There are good jobs, good wages, good livings in manufacturing. It's no longer dirty, dark and dangerous."

For its part, Lakeland Mold has kept its wages competitive with other area manufacturers, Lackner said. In some cases, the company hires lower skilled workers and then provides on-the-job training.

The company has a tuition reimbursement program to help its employees advance their skills through technical college courses. Lakeland also participates annually in a career fair to attract local high school students into manufacturing careers.

One problem drawing workers to the field is that manufacturing jobs have declined in recent decades. There's a perception that manufacturing jobs have mostly gone overseas, making some prospective workers think that sector of the economy holds less career promise, Hine said.

"We have seen manufacturing jobs in Minnesota drop by 25 percent over the last couple of decades," Hine said. "In our career guidance information, we would suggest that career seekers look at areas in which we have seen or are projecting significant growth when they decide what their course of study is. So I think that manufacturing is going to have a difficult time convincing individuals that the industry is an area of opportunity."

Researchers say it may be that, in recent years, students have had fewer opportunities to explore manufacturing as a career option. Many junior high and high schools have cut back on industrial technology training, according to Minnesota Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius.

"I think what we've done over the past couple of decades... was we put this strong focus on a four-year college degree, and it kind of swung the pendulum way to the right," said Cassellius. "And then high schools started to eliminate their family and consumer science programs, and they started to eliminate their wood shop programs and all their technical business programs. And now they've gotten rid of and not invested in the machinery that would be necessary to give students these kinds of skills in high school."

The so-called skills gap has had the attention of officials from the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system for several years.

Mary Rothchild, who oversees workforce development for MnSCU, said the agency has worked to create partnerships with employers to respond more quickly to their needs.

"What's interesting to us is that while the skills gap plays a role exclusively in a very small number, perhaps, we see that 87 percent of all vacancies have either exclusively a skills gap problem, or it's a contributing factor to the difficulty that employers have in hiring for those positions," Rothchild said in reaction to the DEED study. "So we think we're on the right path with thinking about the implications of this kind of study for higher education."

MnSCU joined with the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce last spring and summer to host a series of workforce assessment forums to hear the concerns of employers.

MnSCU and others have embarked on a number of initiatives to deal with the skills gap question. The federal government is financing experiments, and several community colleges are now building new manufacturing-related degree programs to meet some of those needs.

There are also some industry-driven training initiatives that rely on partnerships with private trainers and public higher education facilities.