By: Al Edenloff

When President Obama starting talking about training workers to fill high-tech jobs during his State of the Union message Tuesday night, Kevin Kopischke took a keen interest.

But he didn’t have to turn up the TV from the couch. All he had to do was lean forward a bit.

Kopischke, president of Alexandria Technical and Community College (ATCC), was sitting in the balcony of the U.S. House of Representatives chamber in Washington, D.C. where the president delivered his hour-long speech.

U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar, who toured the ATCC a year ago, invited Kopischke to attend the event with her. She’s impressed with the college’s 96 percent job placement rate, its cutting-edge customized training department and the partnerships it has formed with local manufacturing businesses that need more highly skilled workers.

“I think Alex Tech is a great example to show how the coordination between schools and businesses can help fill jobs and keep the country moving forward,” Klobuchar said in a phone interview with the Echo Press shortly after Obama’s speech.

Kopischke said it was “quite an honor” to attend the event as a representative for ATCC and the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system (MnSCU).

From his balcony seat, he said he had a good view of the president and could watch everyone as they came into the chamber.

Kopischke said that the president put a good topic on the table – how the U.S. needs to find more workers to fill the demand for highly skilled positions in the growing fields of manufacturing, health care and energy.

Obama noted that the science and technology industries have twice as many openings as they have workers who can do the job. Kopischke said that two-year degrees from colleges like the ATCC can help fill those jobs.

“Two-year colleges need to be positioned as the solution – not the problem,” Kopischke said. “Let’s get it to work and make sure we upgrade the skills of people entering the work force.”

For Kopischke, a highlight of the address was when the president called for an increase in financial aid. Obama said at a time when Americans owe more in tuition debt than credit card debt, Congress should stop the interest rates on student loans from doubling in July. Obama said the tuition tax credit should be extended and that the work-study jobs that students can take to earn their way through college should be doubled in the next five years.

Kopischke also agreed with Obama’s plea for states to do their part by making higher education a higher priority in their budgets.

“The state must continue to invest in higher education,” Kopischke said. “We’ve lost a lot of dollars in the last five years.”

Since 2006, state funding to community and technical colleges has dropped from $3,830 per student to $2,948, according to MnSCU.

Both Klobuchar and Kopischke were impressed with the bipartisan mood in the chamber and with the president’s call to put aside political differences for the good of the country.

“Overall, there was a very positive energy in the room,” Klobuchar said.

“He issued a bipartisan challenge that in order to move ahead, we need to move ahead together,” Kopischke said.

One move that Klobuchar has pushed for fit well with the bipartisan tone – having Republicans and Democrats sitting alongside one another as they listened to the speech, instead of in different parts of the chamber. Not everyone followed the suggestion, but Klobuchar, a Democrat, said she was flanked by two Republicans. “We should work together on common problems,” she said.

For Kopischke, the most emotional moment of the evening was a long ovation for Arizona Representative Gabrielle Giffords, who was badly injured in an assassination attempt last January and is resigning her seat.

“It was very impressive and appropriate,” said Kopischke.