Sen. Al Franken, Ron Antony: A one-stop shop to get back to work

  • Article by: AL FRANKEN and RON ANTONY
  • Updated: March 11, 2012 - 7:30 PM

Workforce training efforts pay off for Minnesotans-- and for their state.

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Many job seekers who would use the WorkForce Center in Woodbury have been refered to the Central Park Library (Shown here) across the street to do their research, job hunt or filling out applications.

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One of us is a Democrat. One of us is a Republican.

We have very different ideas on many important issues -- but no one, Democrat or Republican, can ignore results. And investing in workforce development is a proven strategy for improving the economy -- not to mention a great Minnesota success story.

In 1993, the first "One-Stop" workforce development office opened in Minneapolis. Two years later, a federal grant made it possible to spread this system statewide.

Unemployed Minnesotans can come to these "One-Stop" offices -- called WorkForce Centers -- for help finding a job.

They can find lists of available jobs, guidance in building their résumés, even referrals for open positions. Counselors can also help people find out if they qualify for additional support or training.

Workforce development has made a big difference in the part of the state where one of the authors of this article, Mr. Antony, lives.

Last year, more than 2,700 southwestern Minnesotans attended a workshop or used the Resource Room at WorkForce Centers in Marshall, Montevideo and Worthington -- and nearly 3,000 people received direct services through partner programs in the region.

It's made a difference in Mr. Antony's family, too. In 2008, his wife was laid off after 10 years on the job. But her local WorkForce Center helped her go back to school and earn a second degree. Today, she's back at work, as a teacher, thanks in no small part to workforce development funding.

We call that a smart investment. And so do business leaders from all across Minnesota. There are 49 WorkForce Centers across the state overseen by 16 area Workforce Investment Boards run by members of the local business community -- who, after all, are the ones who need qualified workers to fill jobs.

Workforce development is particularly important when it comes to the manufacturing sector. We've seen too many manufacturers have positions go unfilled because they lack qualified applicants. Ironically, at a time when we have the worst long-term unemployment since the Great Depression, there are manufacturers anxious to fill hundreds of thousands of jobs across the country.

But these aren't your grandfather's manufacturing jobs. They are high-tech precision manufacturing jobs like operating a CNC machine -- that's Computer Numerical Control. These jobs require critical thinking, problem-solving, and what are known as STEM skills: science, technology, engineering and math.

These skills are practically mandatory for any worker looking to succeed in the 21st-century economy. Eighteen of our state's 20 fastest-growing industries require them. And our manufacturers are particularly desperate to hire people who have them.

Take Erick Ajax. Erick runs E.J. Ajax and Sons, a metal-stamping company in Fridley with 50 employees.

He and some other manufacturers partnered with Hennepin Technical College and HIRED, a workforce development agency, to start M-POWERED, a program that allows students to pick up basic and advanced manufacturing skills.

Erick just hired four M-POWERED graduates; overall, 93 percent of the more than 250 M-POWERED graduates to date have gone on to find permanent jobs.

Indeed, at a recent ceremony for a CNC machinist program, there were 12 graduates, and 15 companies showed up hoping to hire them.

Thanks in part to our excellent workforce development programs, Minnesota has an unemployment rate well below the national average. But even as the job market begins to improve, WorkForce Centers report steady demand -- especially from people whose unemployment benefits are expiring. And in many places, there are waiting lists for job training.

That's why you'd think that continuing to fund workforce development would be a high priority in Washington, even in a time of tight budgets. But the House of Representatives attempted to cut funding for workforce development by $2.2 billion, a 75 percent cut.

Failing to invest in workforce training would be a disaster for Minnesotans looking for work, and for Minnesota businesses that need to hire qualified workers.

There may be issues on which the two of us have very different perspectives. But the more time we spend touring WorkForce Centers -- the more stories we hear from business owners like Erick Ajax -- the more convinced we are that this should be an investment on which we can all agree.

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Al Franken represents Minnesota in the U.S. Senate. Ron Antony is a commissioner in Yellow Medicine County.

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