BEMIDJI—U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., is working on legislation in Congress to help bridge the gap between employers and the workforce. In doing so, Klobuchar is getting input from business and education leaders from across the state by way of a staff-run tour with stops in multiple northern cities to find out what they have and still need.

Starting Tuesday, the two-day Minnesota Workforce Tour made stops in Duluth, Grand Rapids, Cass Lake, Hibbing, Brainerd, Pequot Lakes and Bemidji. For Wednesday's Bemidji meeting, staff from Klobuchar's office met at Northwest Technical College with local leaders, including BSU and NTC President Faith Hensrud and the Minnesota Innovation Institute Coordinator Mary Eaton.

The session opened with a video message from Klobuchar, who outlined the reason for the tour and gave details on the American Apprenticeship Act, which will be introduced soon. According to a press release from Klobuchar's office, the act would create and expand tuition assistance for participants in pre-apprenticeships and registered apprenticeship programs.

"This meeting is about making sure workers have the skills they need to succeed. To make sure they're prepared for the jobs of tomorrow that Minnesota businesses are creating today," Klobuchar said in the video. "We have businesses that need workers, we have workers that need jobs, but often times the skills don't match up with the jobs available. It's particularly true with employment issues in our rural area."

Tim Knudson, National Sales Director from Wells Technology Inc., talks about their business during a "Minnesota Workforce Tour."

Klobuchar also provided survey information in the video that showed 66 percent of manufacturers say it is difficult for them to find workers with the right skills and experience. That figure has increased from 40 percent in 2010, Klobuchar said.

Klobuchar also helped secure a $5 million grant from the Department of Labor to strengthen partnerships between community colleges and local businesses along with expanding apprenticeship programs, according to a release. The funding has been used to create the Minnesota Apprenticeship Initiative, which has 115 active apprentices as of Feb. 1.

"It's a really important dialogue that we need to have," Hensrud said at Wednesday's meeting. "I'm very pleased with what I've seen since I've joined this community last July, in the partnerships that we have with organizations like Greater Bemidji and Minnesota Innovation Institute.

"There is more we need to do, though, and I firmly believe that NTC is in a position where we can start becoming much more relevant than we have been in the past for the manufacturing workforce development in the region," Hensrud said.

Local solutions

The issue of bridging the skills gap between employer and employee has been an important topic in Bemidji the past few years and as a result, multiple initiatives have been launched. An example is the Minnesota Innovation Institute, or MI2.

Launched in 2013, the program is a partnership between Greater Bemidji Economic Development, BSU and NTC to train new skills to those entering the workforce or others who've had a life change, skills that include mechatronics and computer numeric control.