A couple of unexpected players have entered the debate over the job-skills gap with a new poll suggesting that U.S. employers are finally ramping up training and employee benefits.
The reason? They hope to retain the expertise that resides in the baby boomer generation that’s racing toward retirement.
In releasing their new poll Monday, AARP and the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) said that 72 percent of surveyed H.R. professionals identified the pending departure of retirees as a "problem" that their organizations hoped to fix. HR managers said they are busy preparing for an onslaught of older and skilled departees.
To understand the scope of the dilemma, consider that a Pew Research Center report indicates that 10,000 baby boomers will turn age 65 every day for the next 20 years. Many are expected to retire or curtail their workload as they become old enough to qualify for government-paid health benefits under Medicare.
As a result, HR managers said they were busy:
More than half the managers stated that their older workers had "stronger writing, grammar and spelling skills" than younger workers and that they exhibited a stronger professionalism and work ethic.
The Iron Range Mining Association and the state's economic development pros predicted this week that the mining industry could soon face a "significant" shortage of workers.
It's a scenario that is hard to imagine today. Minnesota's entire mining and logging industry only added 200 workers combined in the last 12 months, after laying off thousands in the past decade.
But association officials say more than 40 percent of people working in Minnesota's taconite and precious metals mines are old enough to retire tomorrow. Yet there are lots of projects in the mining pipeline that need workers for the long haul, supporters say.
"Currently, there are not enough young people pursuing the technical or vocational training to fill these and future positions," the association said in a statement issued Friday.
A new study from the University of Minnesota-Duluth estimates that 5,000 Minnesota mining jobs could be created if all the metals-mining projects currently on the planning table pass the required environmental tests and become operational. Some mining companies are preparing for that possibility.
Twin Metals Minnesota is working with the Northeast Higher Education District and Arrowhead University to develop customized training programs that will entice students to the field.
A consortium of community and state colleges launched the Iron Range Engineering (IRE) plan, which places engineering students from Minnesota State University Mankato on mining design projects.
Separately, industry officials are urging the state to expand its FastTRAC job training program so that it applies to the mining trades and not just training in high-tech manufacturing. Stay tuned.
The Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED), is working with the Iron Range Mining Association, Minnesota Mining, Twin Metals and other groups to tap prospective workers for the future.
The state of Minnesota wants to peek inside your company. By measuring what employers really need, Minnesota hopes to plug the skills gap that is leaving factories and engineering firms with job openings and few qualified candidates.
The joint “Workforce Assessment” initiative was launched this week by the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED), and the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities (MNSCU), the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce.
The statewide project will start in April and should result in "precise projections of Minnesota’s workforce needs," state officials said. DEED Commissioner Mark Phillips estimates that 70 percent of all jobs in the state will require some type of education beyond high school by 2018.
As part of the assessment, employers will be asked to attend some of the 40 meetings being arranged by industry sector and geography. The first round of sectors to be studied include healthcare, information technology, manufacturing, engineering, energy, and transportation.
For example, organizers want to know how many line workers employers in these industries need; how many professionals, and what skills are needed for which jobs? Participating firms are expected to describe what skills they need for specific types of jobs.
More than 40 listening sessions throughout the state are planned, state officials said in a statement that announced the effort.
MNSCU will use the data gathered from the sessions to create or improve certificate and degree programs, worker retraining workshops, and customized training programs.
Workforce Assessment sessions for the agriculture sector are planned for June and July. Sessions for financial services and insurance and other sectors, are planned for this fall.
Business and industry representatives can register for workforce assessment sessions by visiting http://mnworkforceneeds.eventbrite.com.
President Obama sent his deputy labor secretary to Minneapolis Tuesday to shake hands and showcase the good training work being done at Hennepin Technical College.
The college tour, complete with officials from Minnesota's economic development division; manufacturers such as St. Jude Medical and E.J. Ajax and Sons; students and rags-to-riches employment stories, is part of a nationwide initiative to drum up support for the $8 billion community-college jobs-training program that Obama floated during his State-of-the-Union address.
The proposal is now in his annual budget. If approved by Congress, Obama would use the money to train 2 million workers at community colleges with the latest high-tech and health-care skills.
To show Congress how such a program could work to spur jobs, U.S. Labor Deputy Sec. Seth Harris is visiting community colleges in North Carolina, Iowa, Pittsburgh and the Twin Cities, while U.S. Labor Sec. Hilda Solis hits other college hot spots.
At Hennepin, Harris was clearly wowed. "They have done an excellent job coming together with employers to train workers for high earning, middle-class jobs," he said.
While there, Harris did a little training of his own.
He donned a "virtual welding" helmet, watched students cut metal using computer controlled lasers and nodded approvingly as nursing students pried information from resistant "patients" sprawled on hospital beds. He also met several of Hennepin Tech's corporate partners and several laid-off workers who turned to Hennepin to receive degrees and certificates. They went onto secure well-paying jobs.
Harris said the college is one of the best in the country when it comes to partnering with businesses and state government to train existing workers, laid off job hunters, ex-convicts and low-income wage earners looking to bolster their skills, credentials and income, Harris said.
Hennepin Technical received a $2.6 million federal-grant in 2009 to buy high-tech equipment and provide training scholarships to 350 students. Such programs are seen as gateways to employing workers who have been hit hard by the economy and need to upgrade their skill sets.
Harris said he watched one manufacturing technical student master an expensive "CNC" machine that uses computers to manufacturer goods with robots. The student already made $24 an hour using a less-expensive CNC machine. When Harris asked why he was bothering leaning the newer machine, the student explained that he could make $30 an hour running the advanced machine.
Training works, Harris said.
Minnesota educators, small business owners and manufacturers listened carefully to President Obama’s State of the Union address Tuesday to learn what’s in it for them.
Small businesses said they want Obama to kill talk of raising taxes on the wealthy. Manufacturers want better-educated workers. And educators said they want Obama to boost federal financial aid for students. Everyone insisted they were tired of the gridlock and wanted Obama and Congress to get on with their jobs.
Kevin Kopischke, president of Alexandria Technical and Community College, had an up-front seat to Obama’s speech, thanks to an invitation by U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn).
“I am very honored to be here,” said Kopischke, who has been front and center in efforts to combat Minnesota’s growing job-skills gap. His college in Alexandria, Minn., and community colleges across the country are trying to train both older workers and fresh-faced students so they have the technical skills demanded by today’s high-tech factories. Still there are shortages.
So, Obama needs to address two problems, Kopischke said. Young people are not attracted to manufacturing because U.S. high schools no longer offer the vocational and technology classes that were common in the 1950s, 60s and 70s. The other problem is that state tuition grants have dwindled in recent years. That makes it cost prohibitive for many workers to update technical qualifications needed in today’s robot-filled factories.
“Minnesota State Colleges and Universities now receive 48 percent less per student than in 2000,” Kopischke said. “The state of Minnesota has decided to disinvest and that has resulted in more students sharing a higher cost of tuition.” The same problem exists in other states.
To combat that, Obama should increase federal Pell grants for students wanting to attend two-year and technical colleges, he said. “If indeed our policy makers are serious about solving the skills gap or making sure that we have a workforce that is ready to meet the demands of this global economy, we need people who are trained.”
During his speech,Obama touched on many themes near and dear to Kopischke's heart. Obama urged states to reign in tuition costs and asked Congress to help expand job-training and job creating partnerships between technical and community colleges and corporations. Such partnerships turn unemployment into "reemployment," he said.
As an example, Obama talked about Jackie Bray, a single mother and mechanic in North Carolina who was laid off from her job. "Then Siemens opened a gas turbine factory in Charlotte, and formed a partnership with Central Piedmont Community College. The company helped the college design courses in laser and robotics training. It paid Jackie's tuition, then hired her to help operate their plant.I want every American looking for work to have the same opportunity as Jackie did," Obama said.
He then asked Congress to "Join me in a national commitment to train two million Americans with skills that will lead directly to a job...You need to give more community colleges the resources they need to become community career centers - places that teach people skills that local businesses are looking for right now, from data management to high-tech manufacturing," Obama said.
Bob Kill, CEO of Enterprise Minnesota, said Obama's message addressed a topic that is important to his clients. The job skills gap is the loudest complaint he hears from the 200 small and mid-sized manufacturers Enterprise Minnesota advises.
Many of Kill's clients have job openings, but can’t fill them because applicants lack the right skill set, Kill said. Many try to work with local technical colleges to attract and train new workers. But finding interested young folks is hard. Many avoided manufacturing after 10 turbulent years of cost cutting, layoffs, and new technologies that require greater know-how but fewer workers.
In addition to job training, Kill said he wants Obama and the Congress to improve the tone in Washington.
“What we really need is some action: to get [the country] moving; get rid of the polarization; and make some decisions and move on,” Kill said. “It’s more of the uncertainty in the economy that affects [our clients’] business decisions than other individual topics out there.”
In a recent survey of 400 Minnesota manufacturers, Enterprise Minnesota found that manufacturers are trying to tap more local suppliers who can deliver smaller orders faster without the huge energy costs and delays that come with overseas shipping.
That could help Obama’s jobs agenda. He again pledged a jobs creation proposal to put people to work building bridges, roads and other infrastructure projects. He asked Congress to fund the initiative using some of the money no longer being used to support U.S. troops in Iraq. The money should instead be used on "nation-building right here at home," Obama said.
Republicans largely rejected the effort, saying it was too spendy, too short term and too risky when the nation faces unprecedented levels of debt.
Small business owners have taxes at the top of their agenda.
Officials at The National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB), which has 350,000 members including about 13,000 in Minnesota, said they wanted Obama to back off his pledge to raise taxes on the wealthy.
They did not get what they wanted. Obama insisted Tuesday that American's making more than $1 million a year should be taxed at a 30 percent rate.
NFIB members and Republicans balked.
NFIB spokeswoman Jean Card said many NFIB members set up subchapter S corporations or limited liability firms and pay taxes at the individual rate, even though they reinvest most of the income into the business. They could be unfairly burdened should Obama's plan see the light of day.
Obama “should show them that he understands and appreciates the fact that small-business owners file their taxes not as corporations, but at individual rates. So individual rates matter and shouldn’t be raised,” said Dan Danner, the federation’s CEO.
Small businesses also worry about extensive government regulations. Obama “could, and should, pledge to shut down, really shut down, the regulatory onslaught that has made the cost of doing business a moving target,” Danner said.
If you are a tiny business looking to export your goods, listen up. The state has training money for you.
The Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED) just received more than $450,000 from the U.S. Small Business Administration for its State Trade and Export Promotion Program (STEP).
Exporting is seen as such an economic boom and job creator that the state and feds want more small businesses in the game. The $450,000 pool of training dollars is meant to provide technical assistance to companies who want to sell to foreign markets for the first time or expand into new markets. The ultimate goal, however, is to spur job growth here at home.
"The revenue and jobs that exports create here at home are extremely important to Minnesota's economic health and well-being," said DEED Commissioner Mark Phillips. "Last year, state exports of manufactured goods, agricultural commodities and services totaled $31 billion and were responsible for an estimated 115,000 jobs."
Still, only about 8,100 Minnesota companies do business outside the United States, said Minnesota Trade Office Executive Director Katie Clark. "There is tremendous untapped export potential for small businesses statewide, especially those engaged in manufacturing, wholesaling, and professional and technical services," she said.
For more information or to apply to STEP, go to www.positivelyminnesota.com/step.