In 2016-2017 Burnsville High School launched a radically redesigned curriculum to try to plug Minnesota’s job skills gap.
The suburban school south of the Twin Cities now funnels students into career pathways instead of a general academic regimen.
Burnsville has become a national model for states like Minnesota that face a disconnect between available employment and the training needed to fill them. Yet even as well-paying posts in manufacturing and trades go begging, the American dream of a bachelor of arts or sciences dies so hard that politicians and public officials find themselves in a culture war as they push workforce legislation and policies.
The idea of career and technical education — what an older generation called “shop” or “vocational ed” — makes sense to people “as long as you pose this for someone else’s children,” said Anthony Carnevale, director of Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce. “When you ask, ‘Should your kid go to a four-year college?’ the answer is always ‘Yes.’ ”
Mirroring a decadelong trend, a 2017 survey by the trade group Enterprise Minnesota found roughly half of Minnesota manufacturers still struggle to find qualified applicants for available jobs. Allison Liuzzi, who studies the skills gap for the nonprofit research group Minnesota Compass, said employment data suggest that two-thirds of job openings in Minnesota in the next decade will require some education beyond high school. However, half those jobs will require less than a four-year degree.
At the same time, Liuzzi said, studies show that four-year college graduates have better potential for promotion and cumulative earnings over the course of their working lives.
In the end, it’s “a question of fit,” Liuzzi said. “We have enough anthropology majors. It has to be a supply and demand issue.”
Carnevale, who was appointed to workforce posts by Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, said it is also about deeply rooted expectations.
“Post World War II, the goal was to get 15 to 20 percent of high school graduates to go to college,” he said “In 1983, we decided that everyone would get a general academic education in high school and we wouldn’t track anyone ... College is a class marker, as well as an academic marker.”
Elizabeth McCormick’s parents did not ask whether she would go to a four-year college. They asked which one. McCormick and her family are still focused on a traditional college degree, even though the 17-year-old attends Burnsville High.
Thanks to the school’s unique career pathways curriculum, McCormick intends to study finance, a major she had not originally considered and one where she is more likely to find a job.
Chris Fuentes, like McCormick, is a 17-year-old Burnsville High senior. There are no college graduates in his extended family.
“My family is low income,” Fuentes said. “They see college as a possibility for me not to have to work like them.”
Fuentes has used the Achievement Via Individual Determination — AVID — program at Burnsville to prepare for college in hopes of a job in health or human service.
In Minnesota’s congressional delegation, Democratic Sens. Al Franken and Amy Klobuchar and Republican Rep. Jason Lewis have each offered multiple bills to try to encourage high school graduates to consider credentialing or community and technical college programs that lead to well-paying, stable jobs that don’t require four-year degrees.
Their initiatives include things like classes that give high school students college credit, partnerships between schools and employers that provide money, equipment and apprenticeships, and federal grants to start more pathway programs like the one at Burnsville.
Kathy Funston directs partnerships and pathways in Independent School District 191, which includes Burnsville. She said it requires “a mind shift” to implement a career curriculum. But she also said Minnesota millennials have watched the American dream transform.
“A lot of our young folks see their brothers and sisters with four-year degrees not working in their fields of interest,” Funston said. “They don’t want to be there.”
Franken singles out Alexandria as a shining example of how industries can partner in training programs with public schools to produce a manufacturing workforce that meets community needs.
Alexandria Technical and Community College works with high schools and employers to fill the skills gap in the area.
“People need to understand that this is not a ceiling as some parents believe,” said Franken, who sponsored a skills gap summit in the spring that drew 350 participants in St. Paul. “It’s a ladder. They know that in Germany. They know it in Switzerland. So in Switzerland, the CEO of Zurich Insurance, a Fortune 500 company, started as an apprentice.”
Georgetown’s Carnevale worked with Clinton on a U.S. school-to-apprentice program in the 1990s. “It fell on its face,” he said.
Klobuchar recently proposed a bill to expand eligibility of tax-exempt higher education savings accounts for use in training and credentialing programs.
“We need to look at our education system and not think one size fits all,” she told the Star Tribune. “We need to acknowledge where our job openings are. That doesn’t mean we’re telling kids, ‘You can’t go to college.’ We’re just making other options available and respected in how we talk about them and how we put incentives in place.”
Lewis felt the influence of academics when he proposed taking $70 million in federal funding increases intended for college preparatory programs for students whose parents never went to college and using the money instead for state grants for career and technical education to fill the job skills gap.
Lewis told the Star Tribune his proposal was the best way to help young Minnesotans find sustainable employment. His amendment to move the money lost in a House floor vote in September. In the state’s delegation, Republican Rep. Tom Emmer and Democratic Rep. Collin Peterson voted for Lewis’ proposal. Republican Rep. Erik Paulsen joined Democrats Betty McCollum, Keith Ellison, Tim Walz and Rick Nolan in voting against it.
For Lewis, any stigma associated with career and technical education “will be removed fairly quickly when people see that, ‘Gosh, my neighbor is operating a lathe at the local manufacturing facility for $65,000 a year with full health benefits, and I’ve got my degree in humanities and I’m serving coffee at Starbucks.’ ”
Americans may accept that reasoning for community and technical college, Carnevale said. But he thinks that pushing vocational education back into high school will create a “race and class divide” where poor students and students of color fill most of the slots in career and technical programs, while four-year college prep mostly becomes the province of middle class and upper class whites.
“That,” he said, “is a political death march.”