The Brainerd Dispatch

By Theresa Bourke

More apprenticeships and conversations about community college opportunities with younger students could be steps in the right direction to decreasing the workforce shortage in central and northern Minnesota.

These ideas and others were brought forth Tuesday, Jan. 25, when leaders from Central Lakes College and other Minnesota State schools met with Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar on a Zoom call.

Klobuchar began by outlining some of her family members’ own successes at community colleges and said investment is going to be one key, as is a better focus on one- and two-year degrees.

Mike Raich, president of Northeast Higher Education District, stressed the importance of apprenticeships, allowing students to earn money and learn valuable work skills at the same time. The Northeast Higher Education District includes Hibbing Community College, Itasca Community College, Mesabi Range College, Rainy River Community College and Vermilion Community College.

“People can’t afford often to set aside time just to learn without earning and then go to work,” Raich said.

Microcredentials is another strategy, Raich said, with students first learning one skill — like welding, for example — and then being able to get a job in the field while continuing their education and pursuing a higher degree.

At Central Lakes College, Paul Preimesberger, dean of enrollment management and student success, said the focus is on student experiences. He specifically noted CLC’s new meat processing program that is set to start in the fall at the Staples campus and take students through the whole process — from farm to production to sales.

CLC also expanded its student food pantry recently, emphasizing mental health and wellness, and opened a multicultural center on the Brainerd campus earlier this month.

“Enrollment certainly has been down over the last couple years, and COVID kind of exasperated that a bit. And that’s, again, why we’ve been really focusing on experiences that connect and engage students so they don’t feel so disconnected from the campus and from the people, from our faculty and staff,” Preimesberger said.

At Itasca Community College, Provost Bart Johnson said staff is looking regionally at which industries need help to not only boost the workforce but also convince students to stay local when they finish their degrees.

“I think there’s a real role that community colleges play to keeping healthy communities and economies,” Johnson said.

Paying attention to the regional demographics is also important to understanding the workforce shortage, Raich said, as it has a lot to do with the generally older population of northern and central Minnesota and a lack of younger workers available to fill the open positions. That’s why another key both he and Johnson mentioned is getting information out to middle and high school students and starting them on career pathways so they not only know what’s available but graduate high school with some sort of workforce skill. That method is also more cost effective, as administrators present on the Zoom call said cost continues to be a barrier for some students.

“It is so geared toward four-year degrees, and that’s the metric of success for so many people in the education system,” Johnson said, noting K-12 curriculums need to make space for work-based experiences.

Klobuchar thanked all those on the call and emphasized her commitment to combating the workforce shortage by working on initiatives like immigration reform and work permits to make it easier for workers coming to the U.S. to fill jobs in needed fields, especially in health care.