Sen. Franken, business leaders address ‘skills gap’ in Stacy

North Branch resident Laura Feaski, a metal finisher for 10 years at Wyoming Machine, talks shop with Sen. Franken during his tour.  Photo by Jon Tatting

North Branch resident Laura Feaski, a metal finisher for 10 years at Wyoming Machine, talks shop with Sen. Franken during his tour.
Photo by Jon Tatting

Closing the “skills gap” was the issue that brought U.S. Sen. Al Franken to meet with local industrial owners April 2 at Wyoming Machine in Stacy.

Franken, D-Minn., began with a tour of the business at 30680 Forest Blvd., where he met with laborers including metal finisher Laura Feaski of North Branch and Jerry Larson, a Class A welder who lives outside of Rush City. The visit concluded with a roundtable discussion with a number of other industrial leaders, including the president of Pine Technical College.

The senator said he’s seeing a pattern in Minnesota and across the country where manufacturers have jobs open but can’t find people with the right skills to fill the vacancies. As a result, Franken looks to build on and create new partnerships between schools and industries to help close this “skills gap”.

Last month, Franken, a member of the Senate’s Education Committee, introduced amendments in part to help train the country’s workforce for jobs of today and in the future — this is part of his effort to make sure Minnesota’s priorities are reflected in the Senate’s Fiscal Year 2014 budget resolution. His amendments would direct investments to job training partnerships between companies and schools, along with skills training for the unemployed.

At present, thousands of Minnesota jobs are vacant because of the skills gap, which hinders economic growth and job creation across the state and nationwide, Franken said.

In Stacy last week, Franken addressed the issue with Lori and Traci Tapani, co-presidents of Wyoming Machine; John Norris, owner of Atscott Manufacturing in Pine City; John Mathiesen, owner of Xccent Manufacturing, Wyoming; Amy O’Brien of Wilson Tool, Hugo; and Steve Reedy, vice president and general manager of Rosenbauer, Wyoming.

Helping lead the discussion was Robert Musgrove, president of Pine Technical College, which partners with local businesses on training efforts designed to close the skills gap. He noted that the college’s Interactive TV program, which was secured by a federal grant, has been helpful as workers can see and interact with the instructor. It’s a good way of combining resources for industries, Musgrove explained.

Others at the roundtable said the college has indeed been helpful in such areas as computers, machining, spot training and even math skills. Business participation can be a way to develop courses and to get workers trained and employed, allowing industries to keep on the competitive edge and economies to thrive.

“It’s been very useful for us,” Lori Tapani said.

Musgrove said there is hope that more federal grant funding will come through to help develop more partnerships between colleges and industries. The group also discussed ways to attract K-12 students to the industrial workforce and generate excitement about its job opportunities.

“It’s challenging to get kids excited,” one of the business leaders at the roundtable said.

Topics of discussion included programs geared toward connecting women and girls with technology, shop classes, machine use events and classes on custom designing and making tools or supplies through three-dimensional printers.

Another business owner talked about some of the challenges, from certain attitudes toward industrial work to the industrial arts that tend to take a hit in school districts that lack funding.

“What about an industrial arts summer program?” Franken asked in discussing alternatives to keep kids involved and interested in working with their hands.

In the end, the Franken asked the group to continue giving him feedback and ideas on what he can do to help close the skills gap.

“There’s a need in the community,” he said. “We need a highly trained workforce through ongoing education and training to compete locally and globally. I’m trying to figure something out that meets your needs and gets things going.”

Traci Tapani replied, “It’s a win (that) there’s a discussion taking place.”

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