Capitol Commentary: Supporting manufacturing in Minnesota

By Sen. Al Franken—

We just marked the end of 2011 – a year lots of people are more than happy to put behind them.

There is no doubt that 2012 is going to be tough, but as we go forward I think there are reasons to be optimistic, especially in Minnesota.

That’s why I’ve been traveling around the state on a manufacturing tour to visit schools, manufacturers, and small businesses to learn more about the workforce needs of manufacturing and how we can prepare our students and workforce to fill these jobs and improve the state’s economy.

And nearly all of them have told me that the number one thing holding them back is that they can’t find enough workers who’ve been trained to perform the high tech manufacturing jobs of the 21st century.

In fact, the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development did a survey ofmanufacturers in our state, and found that nearly half had positions going unfilled because they lacked qualified applicants.

And, to be clear, these jobs require advanced training.  These aren’t your grandfather’s manufacturing jobs.  They are high-tech precision manufacturing jobs.  These jobs require critical thinking, problem-solving skills, and what are known as STEM skills – science, technology, engineering, and math.

STEM skills are practically mandatory for any worker looking to succeed in the 21st century economy.  Eighteen of our state’s 20 fastest-growing industries require them.  And there are thousands of these jobs available right now.

There are some communities around the state that are on top of this. Alexandria Technical and Community College is ranked eighth in the nation among two-year schools.  It provides high school graduates with training in industrial arts.  And the college partners with the high school to run an industrial arts summer camp, bringing in people from Douglas Machine to help recruit kids and get them excited about learning these skills.

That’s why Douglas County is the Silicon Valley of packaging machines.  And it’s part of the reason unemployment there is lower than the statewide average.

Across the state, 16 area Workforce Investment Boards are overseeing 49 workforce centers where workers who have lost their jobs are being retrained in the skills they’ll need to find new ones. These boards are run by businessmen and women.  And why?  Because they’re the ones who know what employees need to handle these jobs.

The men and women who will hold these advanced manufacturing jobs in the coming years and decades will carry on a middle-class tradition that stretches back to World War II, a tradition in which anyone can put in a good day’s work and earn a paycheck that allows them to participate in their community.  That’s good for every business, because even if you aren’t in manufacturing, these are the folks who are spending money in their communities.

Right now, we have many economic challenges to face.  Our economy still isn’t where it should be, and although it’s heading in the right direction, it’s heading there way too slowly.

But as we go into 2012, I can’t help but feel we have a lot to be thankful for, and like I said, optimistic about.  Yes, we’re in a tough spot.  But we’ve gotten out of worse.

And, yes, Washington can be a frustrating place to work.  But when I come back to Minnesota, and I see big businesses and small businesses, schools and universities, and labor and community leaders all pulling in the same direction, I know we’ve got bright days ahead.

I’m committed to bringing Minnesota ideas and concerns back with me to Washington so that I can keep fighting to open up new opportunities and make things better for working families across the state. It isn’t going to be easy, but we have a plan of attack in our workforce training programs right here in Minnesota. I know we can do it.

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