National accolades deserved; now let’s do even better

JoeMcDonaldby Rep. joe McDonald

Minnesota House Dist. 29a

The Forbes website recently let our secret slip to the rest of the world: Wright County is a great place to live and get an education.

Forbes.com listed Delano as No. 1 in its nationwide “Best Schools for Your Housing Buck” rankings. I believe a number of other towns in District 29A would fare similarly well, but strict criteria used in the study might have eliminated them from consideration.

In any case, congratulations to Delano. This is a place where our children can receive a quality education, yet the cost of housing is relatively affordable. But, before we get too far ahead of ourselves, there are some key areas where we can do even better. For example, we can do more to match the workforce training our citizens receive with demands of the workforce.

A study conducted by the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development provides some unsettling statistics regarding a skills gap in our state’s workforce. Close to half of the businesses that participated in the study indicated they had positions that were unfilled due to a lack of qualified applicants. More than half of the businesses surveyed expect the severity of this workforce shortage to increase, with 53 percent predicting a moderate or serious shortage. This is especially true in skilled production, where almost two-thirds of respondents predicted a moderate or serious shortage.

Our aging workforce will only magnify this issue, particularly as baby boomers retire and create job vacancies. We need to address our future from a number of angles, and a recent Minnesota Jobs Coalition forum I attended picked up the discussion.

One thing we must examine is how our society has placed increased emphasis on four-year institutions. Unfunded mandates on our schools and more emphasis on “teaching to the test” has put industrial arts on the back burner, exacerbating some workforce shortages.

Through the years, a stigma has been placed on our two-year vocational schools, too often seen as somewhere to go as a last resort. That is disappointing because not everyone fits the liberal arts mold. The world also needs plumbers, electricians, mechanics, construction workers, people with expertise in pneumatics and many more professions. And, yes, this also applies to photographers. I received a two-year postsecondary diploma and, 25 years later, still make a living with those skills I learned behind the camera. I went on to earn a master’s degree in photography, and learning remains a lifelong endeavor.

Is there a better way to market fast-tracking through a two-year school, gaining valuable skills and making a good living at a young age?

We also need our businesses to participate in this process by looking in the mirror. How can they make positions more attractive to potential workers? Can they provide more on-the-job training?

This only scratches the surface on this subject. Rep. Dean Urdahl, our district neighbor to the west, successfully authored legislation to create a 21-member task force to take a closer look. The group will offer recommendations this February for how to structurally redesign secondary and postsecondary education in the state to meet workforce demands. It will be interesting to see what recommendations the task force will issue.

One thing we know for sure is complacency is not an option in today’s highly competitive global market. High taxes already have Minnesota at a disadvantage, and we cannot afford to lose jobs to more hospitable states.

We should be working diligently to become a place where businesses can prosper and strengthen our tax base. It would help if we do more to match workforce training with workforce demands. That kind of improvement might even make list-makers like Forbes take note once again.

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