COLUMN: Tackling workforce shortage on multiple fronts

By Doug Loon
Guest Columnist

The new school year has started, placing renewed attention by the business community to attracting and retaining qualified employees. We view Minnesota’s talented workforce as the secret sauce that drives the economy. It’s at the foundation of making Minnesota ready for the future – ready for change and ready to grow.

Every conversation with employers of all types and sizes includes their urgent concerns about workforce needs. It’s the No. 1 priority shared during our Grow Minnesota! visits, the distinctive economic development program carried out by the Minnesota Chamber. For the past year, the percentage of businesses adding jobs has remained steady, but 75 percent of businesses statewide reported difficulty finding workers.

Fixing the problem demands new approaches. The Minnesota Chamber is doing as much via private-sector initiatives as we’re doing via public policy. Our legislative efforts focus on public education system reforms to help make sure kids are prepared for next steps in their education or the world of work. Our business initiatives focus on direct engagement among employers, high school and college students, and training systems. Trainers must better understand the needs and shape programs based on what’s happening in the local economy.

Finding solutions requires persistent conversations among all the stakeholders. Once-a-year “job summits” won’t produce long-lasting solutions. What’s needed and what the Minnesota Chamber is doing is implementing a strategy that’s equal parts public policy and private-sector initiative.

Among our 2017 legislative successes are reforms to ensure high school graduates are ready for the workforce. Changes to K-12 teacher licensure and teacher layoff rules will strengthen the goal of placing effective instructors in all classrooms. In addition, scholarships are now available for students attending Minnesota State two-year programs of high employment need.

Immigration reform leads our federal efforts. The continued strength of our economy depends on attracting and integrating immigrants into the workforce.

Public policy successes alone will not solve our worker shortages.

Employers must step to the plate. On that front, we are involved in a variety of initiatives.

The Minnesota Chamber is a partner of RealTime Talent, which provides real-time market data for employers and trainers. While this answers the “demand side” of the workforce equation, our newly MN Job Match addresses challenges on the “supply side.” Job Match uses statistically validated questions to connect candidates and employers based on skills, interests and job requirements rather than relying on keyword counts in a resume.

We are challenging employers to change their hiring strategies and cast a broader net. “Hidden Talent Pools,” an event we hosted this spring, explored available workers that employers have overlooked or underused – for example, individuals with physical and mental disabilities or those with criminal convictions.

We’ll make limited headway in supplying employers with qualified employees absent new collaborations. One of our most ambitious efforts is our Business Education Networks, a proactive approach to better synchronize workforce skills with the needs of the changing economy.
Launched in 2015 with the Winona Area Chamber of Commerce, this effort puts employers at the center of workforce development for manufacturing. Business leaders in Winona, home to more than 100 manufacturers, are hosting career expos; participating in CEOs in the classroom; funding teachers and students in the workplace; and guiding selected high school juniors to take college-level accredited courses with summertime internships after their first year and college placement or career opportunities after they graduate.

We’ve expanded Business Education Networks to the hospitality industry in Brainerd and the manufacturing and healthcare industries in Waconia. We hope to replicate the program in other communities where we can identify local partners.

The strategy behind the Minnesota Chamber’s efforts is to better mobilize our state’s employers – the players with the most at stake in ensuring Minnesota’s workforce is well prepared. Building these networks will help narrow the skills gap, plus encourage students from all backgrounds to complete education in areas where they will have opportunity for meaningful employment. That’s a win-win for everyone.

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Doug Loon is president of the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce.