Minnesota needs more vocational students to build the future, leaders say

Apprentice at work
Jessica Hurd drills holes in a measuring device at Buhler Inc. in Plymouth, Minn. Friday, March 28, 2014. Hurd, who's father has worked at the technology and manufacturing company for 35 years, is a second-year apprentice at Buhler. The apprenticeship program is held in conjunction with Dunwoody College of Technology and offers students an alternative to a bachelor's degree.
Jeffrey Thompson/MPR News

After years of urging students to go to college for four years, Minnesota's education leaders are rethinking that push for a bachelor's degree.

More vocational education, they say, just might be the ticket for the state's work force.

Over the past two years, state officials have rolled out proposals to strengthen Minnesota's vocational-technical network and improve the school pipeline to the workplace.

Their efforts represent what some education leaders call a fundamental shift in how government and business are approaching vocational education.

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"I don't think we've seen this level of involvement and commitment ever," said Alexandria Technical and Community College President Kevin Kopischke, who has worked in Minnesota vocational education for almost 40 years.

Apprenticeship Academy
Second-year apprentices learn and work on a variety of technology and manufacturing projects at the Buhler Inc. Apprenticeship Academy in Plymouth, Minn. Friday, March 28, 2014. The Swiss-based company added the academy in 2012.
Jeffrey Thompson/MPR News

Minnesota has had a system of vocational-technical education for decades, much of it concentrated in the construction, manufacturing and health-care trades and supported in part by labor unions.

But many education officials and employers say it has lost status over the past 15 to 20 years, the victim of state funding cuts to high schools and a growing push for students to receive four-year degrees.

"Students going through high school have been told, 'You have to go to college,'" said Amy Walstien, director of education and workforce-development policy at the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce. "There hasn't been that focus on the other types of (education), like career and technical."

The recent recession and high unemployment of college graduates, however, have helped spark a change in thinking over the importance of a four-year degree.

"The leading voices have been the students and the business sector - students with their comments about crushing debt and job insecurity and industry with their complaints that they're not able to fill the jobs that they currently have open," said Sen. Terri Bonoff, DFL-Minnetonka and chair of the higher education committee.

Industry is playing an unprecedented role in the discussions, said Mary Rothchild, director for workforce development for the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities (MnSCU) system.

State funding for higher education has declined dramatically in the past decade. According to MnSCU data, in 2002 the state covered more than 66 percent of students' tuition. By 2012, that had dropped to about 40 percent.

So Minnesota leaders are becoming increasingly interested in working with industry, she said. They're seeing it more as a partner -- and potential source of education funding.

And the education of choice for many Minnesota employers is becoming vocational. They're seeing it as a faster, less expensive way for the state to provide them with skilled workers, Rothchild said.

"There's very little interest by state legislatures in investing in higher education unless they see a return on investment" in the form of skilled workers, she said. "And the return on investment is dictated by the private sector."

Measuring forms
Matt Schweizer measures metal forms at Buhler Inc. in Plymouth, Minn. Friday, March 28, 2014. Schweizer is one of ten apprentices working at Buhler. The apprenticeship program is held in conjunction with Dunwoody College of Technology and offers students an alternative to a bachelor's degree.
Jeffrey Thompson/MPR News

National leaders are changing their attitude, too.

A recent Georgetown University report widely quoted in Minnesota higher-education circles says that by 2020, 74 percent of all jobs in Minnesota will require some form of postsecondary education. And half of those will not require a four-year degree.

And several years ago, President Barack Obama began suggesting that students don't necessarily need a bachelor's degree -- just some form of postsecondary education, from a short-term certificate to a two-year degree.

"All he said the first four years was 'community college,'" said Minnesota Commissioner of Higher Education Larry Pogemiller.

Although some state lawmakers have long advocated for vocational education, he said, Obama played a large role in raising its profile here.

The push began building in Minnesota in 2012, when MnSCU and the state Chamber of Commerce spent months asking businesses around the state what skills they're looking for. They wanted MnSCU to make its college programs more relevant to employers.

"We've done a better job listening and trying to understand that, and a better job trying to respond to it," said MnSCU Chancellor Steven Rosenstone.

Since then, he has pushed for more state funding for internships, equipment and faculty training.

And last year Rosenstone rolled out a plan to put into action some of the things MnSCU had learned from talking to employers.

In addition to better aligning college courses to the needs of business, it would also increase the number of apprenticeships and make the workforce training system more affordable and easier to navigate.

Preparing for shipment
Second-year apprentice Travis Phillips prepares a flaker for shipment at Buhler Inc. in Plymouth, Minn. Friday, March 28, 2014. The apprenticeship program at Buhler is held in conjunction with Dunwoody College of Technology and offers students an alternative to a bachelor's degree.
Jeffrey Thompson/MPR News

Lawmakers have also come out with their own proposals -- to strengthen vocational programs, expose high-school students to technical trades, and provide students them with precise skills. The proposals include:

Collect better job data. MnSCU is comparing skills listed in job postings with what college programs in those fields are teaching. It's also collecting job postings from online sources to see which jobs are in demand in Minnesota, and where. MnSCU's Rothchild says that data should be more up to date than what's available now.

Give high-school students access to college-level vocational courses and IT certification. In 2012, the Legislature allowed students as early as 10th grade to take career and technical courses for credit at two-year colleges. And a bill this session would enable high-school students to earn skill certifications in information technology.

Expand apprenticeship opportunities. Impressed with the apprenticeship program run between Buhler Inc. of Plymouth and Dunwoody College of Technology in Minneapolis, Bonoff wants to create apprenticeships in the high-demand fields of advanced manufacturing, health-care services and information technology. This year she has proposed a bill that would set the stage by requiring the state to establish competency standards -- with possible industry input -- for future apprentices in those fields.

The discussion isn't confined to vocational programs. Some of the proposals call for more hands-on learning and career skills in classes offered at four-year campuses as well.

The new vocational tone has raised at least one concern.

Dane Smith, president of the St. Paul think tank Growth & Justice, said he does support the expansion of vocational education. But he cautioned against making it the default option for low-income and minority students, who often don't have the academic background of their middle- and upper-class white peers.

"We shouldn't consign, relegate or give up too easily on the four-year potential of a lot of these students," he said.