Guest commentary: How two year degrees can help fuel the economy

By Amy Klobuchar, U.S. Senator

This year I invited Kevin Kopischke, president of Alexandria Technical & Community College, to join me at the State of the Union speech on Tuesday evening.

I believe his presence helps me highlight the importance of technical education for the future of America’s economy.  And, have no doubt, revitalizing the economy continues to be the central challenge facing our nation.

At Alexandria Technical & Community College, Kevin has an innovative program that trains students for the technologically-advanced fields of manufacturing automation and motion control, especially in the packaging industry.

In a time when too many people are out of work, the program has a job placement rate of 96 percent.  Each year, it also provides customized training and continuing education courses for 5,000 existing Minnesota businesses.

It prepares students for high-tech positions that do not require a Ph.D. or even a four-year college degree, but nonetheless demand specialized training and experience.

From paper mills to poultry lines, American industry is changing.  Increasingly, economic success depends on advanced technology as well as the workers who have specialized skills to use that technology and get the job done.

I have seen this firsthand the past few months with my “Made in America” economic tour across our state.  The tour has taken me to nearly 30 communities, where I’ve seen many great Minnesota businesses that are keeping our economy strong.

For example, I met with workers at Duluth Pack, a homegrown company in Duluth that’s been making outdoor gear for 130 years.

In the 1920s, they made the first “auto packs” that clamped on to the running boards of a car to carry extra gear. They also made the canvas luggage used by the earliest passengers on commercial airplane flights.

Today, Duluth Pack makes bags for iPads and laptops. But they still make each product the same way – with a lifetime guarantee.

I’ve found other business success stories in communities, large and small, across the state.

I’ve found them in places like Apple Valley, where Uponor is a leading manufacturer of plumbing and heating products for residential and commercial spaces.  Its North American headquarters in Apple Valley employs 380 people and includes a state-of-the-art training center as well as the company’s manufacturing facility.

I’ve found success in places like Winona, where Peerless Chain currently employs about 300 people and has acquired three other businesses in the past eight years.

The company, which makes chains for a variety of uses, continues to add jobs locally.

And I’ve found success in places like Chisholm and Brainerd, where Brainerd’s LINDAR packaging and plastic company employs 100 people. Eight years ago Chisholm’s Minnesota Twist Drill employed 45 workers and today it employs 132.

These companies know they must continuously innovate and adapt to succeed.  They are already producing the jobs of tomorrow – today.  We need more like them.

But I often hear from Minnesota business leaders that they can’t find enough highly-skilled workers. There are open jobs at many of the companies I’ve visited.

Yet many of them, especially those in high-tech fields, can’t find workers to fill them.

A recent national study forecasts a serious mismatch between future skill requirements in the job market and skill levels of the workforce.  The study estimates that, by 2018, 70 percent of all jobs in Minnesota will require at least some postsecondary education, putting the state third in the nation, behind only Massachusetts and Colorado.

That’s why I’m working right now to develop federal legislation that would, among other things, build on the success in Alexandria by providing incentives for small and mid-sized manufacturers to work with their local technical and community colleges.

I see this as just one part of a broader competitive agenda for our economy – which would include cutting regulatory red tape, reducing the deficit, promoting more R&D and boosting science and math in our schools.

We should have a clear goal for the economic state of the union:  To be a country once again that thinks, that invents, that makes things and exports to the world.

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