When speaking of the future of manufacturing, Hutchinson’s economic development director Miles Seppelt tells stories of visiting local businesses.
“They ask me if I have five people with me because they’ll hire them right now,” he said early last year.
The same tale is told elsewhere in Minnesota. U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar heard it Tuesday when she visited Felling Trailers of Litchfield.
Co-owner Brenda Jennissen told Klobuchar that between Felling Trailers’ Sauk Center and Litchfield sites where it builds custom trailers, it has 275 employees and 20 to 30 openings.
“People want to buy, and we can build quality,” she said.
But they’re also hard at work trying to keep the roster full.
Paul Radjenovich, vice president of operations, said one trend the business had seen is that a common reason employees leave is simply to move closer to home.
“That was eye-opening,” he said. “We realized we need to home-grow the skills.”
As is the case in Hutchinson, where many manufacturers are building closer ties to the school’s career-focused TigerPath Academies and investing in new equipment to help students see the modern face of manufacturing, Felling Trailers has looked to partner with educators. This year, a class at Sauk Center was given a tour of the facility.
“They were amazed,” Jennissen said. “They had no idea what was going on in their backyard.”
The manufacturer also offers free welding camps with its certified welding instructor, and partners with schools for career classes.
After a tour of Felling Trailers, Klobuchar had a few minutes to answer questions before she was back on the road.
What measures at the federal level would you support in the next few years to help bolster local workforces.
The first, and we are starting to do some of this — I actually worked with the administration on this, specifically Ivanka Trump, because there was a problem getting the Senate bill passed called the Perkins Bill. A group of us got together for dinner and worked out some details on it. We did pass that. It will put more money into apprenticeships and community college, those kinds of things. That’s the first thing.
The second thing is the federal government only has about 10 percent of education funding, but sometimes it can be used not as a hammer, but a carrot, to say ‘OK, if you do these kinds of programs in your schools, then you are going to get a grant or something.’ And I think we should be doing more of that, specifically focused on schools that are doing more with offering technical education, making it easier for schools to pair up with community colleges.
And the third is more a mindset. But it’s just to start saying very clearly as leaders on the federal level, in both parties, there are many paths to success. You don’t need a four-year degree right away. My own sister didn’t graduate from high school, and she went on and worked in manufacturing in Iowa, and she eventually got her GED. And then she got a two-year degree and eventually (a) four-year degree, and she’s an accountant now. I think that whole work experience was very good for her for many reasons. ... We have to be very clear. It’s not one size fits all. You can get a college degree while you are working, and you can certainly work on stuff while you’re in high school. I think parents have to see the value of these jobs, how much they pay, the advantages of them. And employers are looking at, ‘OK, what can I do to be flexible with schedules? What can I do to get more women in the workforce in manufacturing?’ It’s no longer the three D’s: dark, dirty and dangerous. It’s pretty light in there (Felling).”
You mentioned immigration reform when speaking with Felling Trailers. What will help our businesses?
We had an agreement between Democrats and Republicans in the Senate ... that passed a few years ago. It was very focused on order at the border, because you got money from the bill to pay for it. That would have been things like wall, fence, personnel. You want to have more order at the border, that’s true.
But combined with that you’d find work classification, so people who are here, who have not ... committed any serious crime, who are willing to learn English, they are in some kind of work classification so they can work. Either a path to citizenship or a temporary classification. And those kinds of things I think would be really helpful while you are training the workforce in the schools. I’m just so afraid we’re going to start losing workers. And with those people out of the shadows, they start paying taxes instead of working in the shadow economy. ... That money can be helpful to help reduce the debt $158 billion in 10 years ... (which is) why Grover Norquist (president of Americans for Tax Reform) supports this bill. He supported it.
In a world where the job market is changing, and people are looking for new or better opportunities, what can be done to help?
I was up in East Grand Forks at NorthLand College. They went up 6 percent in enrollment, and the biggest group was 30- to 38-year-olds. They went back, but they weren’t going back for a four-year degree, they were going back for one- and two-year degrees. ... I think a lot of it is looking at the job trends and where the openings are. All these people in the trades are retiring, and those jobs pay really, really well. There are jobs on the manufacturing floor and computers and technology.
Some of it is figuring out how to make it more affordable for people (who are) in their 20s and 30s and decide they want to change to be able to get that one-year certification. Sometimes you can go to an employer and say you want to learn this, and they will literally pay for you to get the degree, or make it easier, or you learn on the spot and they train you themselves.