U.S. Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez visited the Minneapolis factory floor of Graco Inc. and Minneapolis Community and Technical College (MCTC) Tuesday to praise the burgeoning collaboration between the worker-hungry manufacturer and area community colleges that are supplying interns and technical-degree graduates in jobs that start at up to $20 an hour.

“There are multiple pathways to the middle class, and $20 an hour plus benefits plus stock options for a 21- or 22-year-old is a pretty good start on achieving the middle class,” Perez said, adding that high-value manufacturing is growing around the country. “And we have the most productive workforce in the world.”

The Obama administration has awarded the Minnesota State College and Universities (MnSCU) system, which includes the two-year schools, $15 million over the next four years to close the “skills gap” through expanded advanced-manufacturing education and classroom work, integrated with employer-driven apprenticeships and cooperative education. MCTC, which will get $1 million, is one of 12 MnSCU institutions that will share the federal money. The funds also will be used to leverage investments, scholarships, internships, equipment, and time invested by such companies as Graco.

Graco is a $1.2 billion-revenue maker of fluid-handling equipment for industry that employs about 1,500 workers at plants in Minneapolis, Anoka and Rogers. The company, which has several dozen job openings, has invested a couple hundred thousand dollars annually in recent years in equipment, scholarships and in-kind services at MCTC.

Moreover, Graco employs 10 interns from MCTC, St. Paul College, Hennepin Technical College and Anoka Technical College and has hired about 35 students from those two-year institutions over the last couple years, said Angie Wordell, Graco’s manufacturing operations director.

“We have a strong relationship with the MnSCU schools and we learn what they need from us and we’ve built the relationship,” Wordell said. “This is a strong recruiting tool. There is no other way we could otherwise recruit and train new [qualified] employees.”

The days of shop-trained high school graduates leaping to the assembly line are over. Most high schools no longer offer such training and high-test manufacturing demands a higher skill set. In addition to offering two-year degrees and requisite certification, community colleges are low-cost training grounds that also educate a disproportionately high group of minority students who will also be the fastest growing component of the workforce as baby boomers retire.

David Ahlers, Graco’s vice president of human resources, said the average Graco manufacturing worker is 48 years old. Many start to retire from the labor-intensive jobs in their 50s.

“Graco is our key partner [for machinists],” said Reede Webster, MCTC’s dean of workforce development. “They’re looking to MCTC and Hennepin Tech for as many machinists as they can get. And we’re trying to get young people, whether just out of high school or adults, to look at this as something new to consider.”

The Graco executives and several employees from MCTC on Tuesday briefed Perez on Graco’s work, base wages that can range to $30 an hour and stock-based supplemental compensation that has made many Graco workers hundreds of thousands of dollars over the years in their retirement plans.

“Graco may not be that well known, but the jobs are good, the pay is good and the working conditions are good,” said Charles Rescorla, vice president of corporate manufacturing.

Avelino Mills-Novoa, MCTC’s interim president, said the expanded “advanced manufacturing partnership” with Graco and other employers is a critical way to expand employment options for trade-oriented students, as well as providing a prerequisite education to four-year degrees for other students.