Chamber, businesses, schools and students all must work to ensure a qualified pool of workers in Minnesota.
Talk one-on-one with businesses across Minnesota, and there's reason for optimism. The domestic economy is growing, and companies are reinvesting through product innovation, new jobs and expansion. Best yet, a majority of the companies are looking to do so in their own back yards or elsewhere in Minnesota.
Good news for employers and job-seekers alike, right?
Enter the troubling side of the equation. The "new normal" condition of the state's workforce has settled in with a continuing shortage of qualified workers for the available jobs. The theme is not new, and it is the driving force behind our efforts at the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce to distinguish Minnesota as the "skilled workforce state."
Our goal this year is to connect with more than 1,000 employers of all sizes and types across the state. That's made possible through our Grow Minnesota partnership with nearly 60 local chambers of commerce. So far in 2012, we've completed 250 visits.
The reports from owners and managers are promising. About one in four of the companies (64 in all) plan to expand within the next two years -- a percentage that has been increasing in recent years. Another 44 companies say they may be considering expansions within the next two years.
Of those with definite expansion plans, 65 percent anticipate growing in their own communities, and an additional 16 percent are looking to stay within Minnesota.
This good news is blunted by the mismatch between the needs of the employers and skill sets of prospective employees. The disconnect is more evident than ever this year. Precision production employees continue to be the most difficult to recruit, no matter which region of the state is reporting.
We cannot sit still. A qualified workforce is the foundation of strengthening the business environment and improving the lives of all Minnesotans.
The first step is to gain a more precise understanding of the state's workforce needs -- how many workers and professionals with what types of skills will be needed in which regions for what kinds of jobs? When visiting companies, we always ask: "Do you have the workers you need to be successful?"
The Minnesota Chamber also is holding listening sessions around the state in conjunction with the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities (MnSCU) system and the Department of Employment and Economic Development. Those meetings have been valuable in connecting employers and educational institutions.
We also need the perspective of students. In that regard, our efforts have been bolstered recently through a grant received from the Institute for a Competitive Workforce, an affiliate of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. We will be conducting a series of town hall meetings to solicit student feedback on a state-level reform process that so far has excluded them.
The final steps are to ensure that our state's higher education representatives, business leaders and policymakers both listen and respond.
First, public and private postsecondary institutions must examine their curricula -- from certificate and degree programs to worker retraining to custom training -- and make changes accordingly. Schools must become more agile in adapting the content and curricula of training programs to meet changing employer needs.
Second, the business community needs to be an active partner with Minnesota's educational institutions by offering more work experiences such as internships or apprenticeships for high school and postsecondary students. Early exposure to a real-work environment is especially important. Business leaders and employees from many sectors should visit schools or host students for a day.
Third, the feedback from employers and the future workforce will help the Minnesota Chamber develop and advance a comprehensive postsecondary and workforce policy next year at the Capitol.
Grow Minnesota visits provide the "eyes and ears" on what's changing the state's business landscape. The program was launched in 2003 with three purposes in mind: thank businesses for their investment in their communities and this state; ask them how we can help them with their everyday business problems, and ask them what's working and not working in state public policy, especially those policies that affect the development of the state's economy and job growth.
These conversations enrich the Minnesota Chamber's two-pronged strategy for building the state's economy. We work year-round to strengthen the statewide business climate, plus we're rolling up our sleeves to help companies one at a time. Our focus on ensuring a pool of qualified workers is essential to continued progress on both fronts.