Business leaders from Red Wing’s biggest manufacturing facilities, local businesses and members of Minnesota State College Southeast held a meeting of the minds last Friday.

Rep. Barb Haley and Department of Economic Development Commissioner Steve Grove attended the roundtable discussion as well.

“What I’m doing is trying to support this community and things that will help us be strong in the future,” Haley said.

Minnesota State Rep. Barb Haley introduces herself to Red Wing business and education leaders during Friday's manufacturing roundtable discussion. Mitch Abraham / RiverTown Multimedia
Minnesota State Rep. Barb Haley introduces herself to Red Wing business and education leaders during Friday's manufacturing roundtable discussion. Mitch Abraham / RiverTown Multimedia

Aside from a quick speech from Grove, the roundtable discussion centered mostly around questions and answers, with topics ranging from current challenges, workforce training and labor shortages.

“We have the highest number of job vacancies in Minnesota’s history. There are 146,000 job openings that we haven’t been able to fill in Minnesota,” Grove said. “You probably feel that as acutely as anyone because manufacturing is one of the top industries that we’ve struggled to fill jobs in.”

He attributed the shortage to previous notions that most manufacturing jobs were going to be outsourced to other countries, but never happened. As a result of those views, students were aggressively pushed into four-year colleges by teachers.

“When in fact there are tremendous careers waiting for folks pursuing two-year degrees, even taking jobs right out of high school that provide on-the-job training,” Grove said. “We haven’t built that pipeline over time and we’re starting to pay for it, so we know that’s a major challenge.”

One of the possible reasons for that was due to the fact that Minnesota has one of the highest students-to-guidance counselor ratios, with there being 787 students to one counselor. Grove stressed a lot of direction towards those trades in high school was being lost because of the high ratios.

“If you can’t see it, how can you imagine it for your own career?” he said.

Dawn Lubahn, the interim dean for business, trade and technology at MSC Southeast, said the curriculum just wasn't there to push students into the trades and manufacturing.

“In the state of Minnesota, the Department of Education requires 16 high school credits for graduation,” she said. “Most of our school districts are above and beyond that for various reasons. Our guidance counselors, our principals and our superintendents, and this isn’t a knock because they are incredibly decent people, all have four-year degrees and then some, so all of the people in our local school districts making decisions about curriculum and what is taught don’t have career and tech ed backgrounds.

“Because they’re not in the field, and they’re not in manufacturing, or in health care they don’t actually know what students need,” she added. “So we’ve gotten to this place of where everyone should do a four-year. Well that’s great and wonderful, but I can tell you that at Southeast we have a lot of student who have four-year degrees and come back for a two-year, so now they have six years of student loans and don’t have a masters (degree). So there’s a huge disconnect.”

Another challenge is workforce training. With more and more workers switching jobs every 5-7 years, businesses have gradually gone away from providing on-the-job training, which has in turn fallen on to the government. However, government can’t possibly train for every job and skillset since only businesses themselves know what they truly need, according to Grove.

After the discussion concluded, Haley thanked them for their input.

“I appreciate your comments, and I talk about that a lot in St. Paul,” she said. “We have a higher ed committee. We have a K-12 committee. We have Department of Economic Development and taxes, and yet this issue, in my opinion, really requires a statewide comprehensive strategy. Because we can’t separate what employers need in the workforce and what the commissioner’s working on from our higher ed. policies. We got to work with other departments to break down those barriers.”