Winona business leaders agree: There just aren’t enough qualified workers to meet the needs of local manufacturing companies.
“We’re still struggling to find warm bodies to fill our positions,” said Fern Beneke, senior accountant for LaX Fabricating in Spring Grove. “We’ve sent out feeds to tech schools, put up posters, made announcements. Nothing. We’ve heard absolutely nothing. We don’t understand what we’re missing.”
Speaking to staff members from the office of Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Beneke and roughly a dozen others voiced concerns Wednesday about a growing divide between the skills needed to perform various trade jobs and the skills that most young people actually have.
“We have baby boomers who grew up with carpentry and welding, and we’re passing out of the workforce,” said Jim Vrchota, vice president of Merchants Bank in Winona. “The people who are following us never had that training, and they’re not able to fill our shoes.”
The meeting took place in a classroom at Minnesota State College Southeast, and much of the conversation centered on how the college is trying to reach local high-schoolers before they decide on a different career path.
One example is the REACH program at Winona Senior High School, which offers students a tech-focused curriculum and a chance to build relationships with local business and colleges before they graduate.
“We’re trying to reach students while they’re still sophomores,” said Travis Thul, dean of trade and technology at Southeast. “We’re trying to set them up for success before life gets in the way.”
“When REACH students graduate,” added Della Schmidt, executive director of the Winona Area Chamber of Commerce, “they’ll know where they’re going to work the Monday after graduation … or they’ll know where they’ll be going to school in the fall.”
But Winona companies are limited by more than the skill of their workforce.
Gerry Krage of the Winona City Council said the lack of child care in the area has a crippling effect on businesses. Simply finding a daycare can be a challenge, he said — let alone affording one — so parents often have no choice but to pass up job opportunities.
Business leaders say that’s especially true for evening and night positions, which can be difficult to fill in the first place.
Then there’s the housing needed to accommodate those workers.
City Council member George Borzyskowski said that, whenever rumors swirl about a new apartment or housing complex, residents in the affected neighborhood strongly oppose the project.
“Then it’s built,” he said, “and they realize it’s not so bad.”
According to Vrchota, whose bank often meets with prospective homeowners, building a house is equally tough these days.
“There’s people right now who would love to have a house, but they can’t find a builder,” he said. There aren’t enough local carpenters to keep up with demand.
Garrison McMurtrey, Klobuchar’s outreach director, said he sees the same issues across the state and around the country.
That’s why Klobuchar’s staff is on a two-day tour of cities in southern Minnesota, he said — so they can remove barriers that keep young people from going into manufacturing, and so they can help dispel myths that hang over these industries.
“Manufacturing is completely different from what it used to be,” McMurtrey said. “It’s not dark. It’s not dingy. It’s not hard labor.”