Members of U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar's office staff stopped at Pequot Tool and Manufacturing in Jenkins on Wednesday, March 29, to host a forum and present the company with a plaque in recognition of its new apprenticeship program.

Pequot Tool received a grant from the Minnesota PIPELINE (private investment, public education, labor and industry experience) Program and will use the money to support the training of incumbent workers as they further their skills and to sustain the hiring and training of new employees through an adult apprenticeship program.

The visit to Pequot Tool was part of Klobuchar's two-day Minnesota Workforce Tour, where her staff visited business and education leaders in six Minnesota cities to discuss local initiatives to bridge the state's workforce.

The program began with a video of Klobuchar expressing the importance of supporting the country's workforce.

"With the new Congress, new president, I now know that it's more important than ever to find common ground on issues that help all Americans. And I think that investing in our workforce can be one of those issues," she said in the video.

Representatives from Pequot Tool and Central Lakes College participated in a forum with Klobuchar's staff, who asked questions regarding employer needs and educational concerns for the manufacturing industry.

CLC robotics professor Nate Peterson said one issue the school has is recruiting students for the manufacturing and technical programs.

Nick Christensen, a Pequot Tool employee who attended CLC in Staples, said the enrollment might relate to the lack of advertisements for these specific programs.

"There's no advertisement to tell people about programs. I knew nothing about it; I had to do my own research," he said. "You've got a kid coming out of high school, and everybody expects them to go to college ... and one thing you don't realize is that they could end up in a ton of debt and not really find a job. Then you've got places like this that are starving for brains."

Though Tim Walker, Pequot Tool employee development coordinator, said his company does have programs that talk to high school students about manufacturing jobs, everyone at the forum agreed that schools and businesses both should work to spread awareness for technical and manufacturing jobs and programs among students of all ages, which includes bringing shop classes back to high schools.

Klobuchar's representatives - which included Outreach Director Garrison McMurtrey, staff assistant Adam Yotter and Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry Deputy Commissioner Jessica Looman - also asked questions about barriers that prevent people from finishing apprenticeship programs and what the state can do to help, apprenticeship demographics, and common myths about manufacturing jobs.

CLC student Devron Welch said he would be reluctant to join an apprenticeship program for fear of not being able to do the work and wasting a company's time. Christensen said one barrier to technical programs - at least at the Staples location - is lack of housing options. Other challenges mentioned were transportation, child care and money, which Klobuchar's staff took note of.

After the forum, audience members got a chance to join in the discussion. John Gunstad, of the Brainerd Lakes Area Economic Development Corporation, said he's glad this discussion took place and agrees that students need earlier exposure to these programs, especially in the form of shop classes.

Other stops on the Minnesota Workforce Tour included Lake Superior College in Duluth, Itasca Community College in Grand Rapids, Leech Lake Tribal College in Cass Lake, Northwest Technical College in Bemidji and Hibbing Community College in Hibbing.

Klobuchar's work

Last year, Klobuchar, D-Minnesota, successfully pushed for a $5 million grant from the Department of Labor to strengthen partnerships between community colleges and local businesses and expand apprenticeship programs. The funding she secured launched the Minnesota Apprenticeship Initiative. MAI employers and colleges will provide updates on how the grant is helping to build a high-skill workforce.

As of Feb. 1, there are 115 active MAI apprentices. Participation in the program produces highly skilled workers, reduces turnover, increases productivity and builds a more diverse workforce. MAI works with various trades, including manufacturing, health care services, information technology and transportation.

Klobuchar will soon introduce the bipartisan American Apprenticeship Act, which would create and expand tuition assistance programs for apprentices.