WASHINGTON—From family farmers in the Red River Valley to innovative engineers at manufacturing companies such as Arctic Cat and Polaris, northwestern Minnesotans play a vital role in keeping our state's economy moving forward.
As 2016 begins, we must rev the region's economic engine by investing in our workforce, improving our transportation infrastructure, ensuring all our citizens have access to high-speed broadband and supporting our farmers.
The northwestern Minnesota/North Dakota region is a manufacturing powerhouse. In order to stay competitive, we must take steps to ensure students and workers have the skills they need to fill the jobs of tomorrow that our businesses are creating today. Businesses such as Digi-Key, Central Boiler, Marvin Windows and Microsoft are driving opportunity in our country. But as these companies grow rapidly, they struggle to find workers to fill open jobs.
In one recent survey, 67 percent of Minnesota businesses said it was difficult to find workers to fill open positions—up from 40 percent in 2010.
To help close this skills gap, we must expand partnerships between our community colleges and local businesses, as well as access to apprenticeship programs. Northland Community and Technical College in Thief River Falls and East Grand Forks is a great example, and Minnesota State Community and Technical College in west-central Minnesota is another.
Minnesota State's "CU Succeed Program" will train 450 residents in the region for in-demand careers in the construction and utilities industries. I've toured the school's Detroit Lakes, Minn., campus and have seen firsthand how this program is preparing workers for careers in advanced manufacturing.
We need more programs like this, not just in northwestern Minnesota but throughout the state and country. That's why I worked with Republican Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., to introduce a bill to boost Science, Technology, Engineering and Math specialty schools and expand STEM opportunities for more students.
I'm proud to report that our bill was included in the bipartisan Every Student Succeeds Act, which recently was signed into law.
Investing in a strong transportation system also is critical for our state's future economic success. The bipartisan Fixing America's Surface Transportation Act, which I fought hard to pass last month, will increase transportation funding for Minnesota and provide state and local transportation leaders with the certainty they need to move forward on critical transportation projects.
Under the FAST Act, Minnesota will get more than $4 billion in federal transportation funding over five years. From building capacity on roadways to upgrading deficient bridges to improving safety on rural roads, these investments boost our state's ability to address real transportation needs.
One of these critical transportation needs is improving rail safety. With the increase in rail shipments through our communities, it's clear we need to do more to protect the public.
As I've traveled across northwest Minnesota, I've heard from local leaders and emergency responders who raised concerns about blocked rail crossings holding up traffic — sometimes for hours — isolating parts of communities and delaying emergency vehicles. After hearing this, I introduced legislation to address the issue and successfully advocated for its inclusion in the FAST Act.
The provision works to ensure the U.S. secretary of transportation provides tools and best practices to local communities to mitigate safety risks posed by blocked rail crossings. I will continue to do everything I can to protect communities along rail routes from the dangers of derailments and blocked crossings.
It's also crucial we improve access to the information highway. Today, you don't need to live near the interstate or a major city to find a good job, launch a new business or take college classes. But without reliable high-speed Internet, your options can be limited.
I've held meetings in East Grand Forks and across the state to talk about the obstacles to expanding broadband. This is a serious issue for many Minnesotans and North Dakotans, with the cost of laying the broadband infrastructure in rural areas a deterrent for many communities.
There are many common-sense ways we can increase broadband access. The first is with funding. The federal government recently awarded more than $85 million to Minnesota for rural broadband deployment. This will help connect more than 170,000 Minnesota homes and businesses to high-speed Internet.
Second, I'm leading a bipartisan bill to reduce the costs of building broadband infrastructure. My legislation would require states and federal agencies to coordinate highway construction with broadband installation—in other words, implementing a "dig once" policy so when we build our roads, we're also laying the groundwork for broadband.
Agriculture is a critical industry in northwest and central Minnesota as well as North Dakota, and we must support the farmers who produce our food and keep our state economy strong. That is why I worked with my North Dakota and Minnesota colleagues, including Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., and Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., to pass a five-year Farm Bill in 2014 that strengthens Minnesota's rural economy and gives our farmers the support and certainty they need to grow and thrive.
With more than 20,000 jobs in the Red River Valley connected to sugar beet farming, we also fought to ensure the bill maintained the sugar program and will continue our work to strengthen the program.
Northwest Minnesota's future is bright and full of opportunity. Strengthening our workforce, improving our transportation infrastructure, increasing access to broadband and supporting our farmers are the seeds for success in 2016.
Klobuchar, a Democrat, represents Minnesota in the U.S. Senate. She wrote this column at the Herald's request.