Closing the skills gap is a matter of partnership

  • Article by: ERICK AJAX and AL FRANKEN
  • Updated: November 10, 2013 - 6:18 PM

Businesses, two-year schools can work together to build a modern workforce.

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A conversation between an intern (Joe Brudzinski, right) and Erick Ajax, co-owner of E.J. Ajax, at the company’s plant in Fridley in March 2013.

Photo: Joel Koyama • Star Tribune,

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One of us owns an innovative advanced metal forming company based in Fridley; the other is a U.S. senator. Both of us share a strong belief that the United States must address the “skills gap” that has left more than 3 million good-paying jobs unfilled. We also know from our experiences that we can close this gap in a way that will connect skilled workers with jobs, help make college more affordable and boost our competitiveness in a global economy.

By forging new and stronger partnerships between businesses and two-year community and technical colleges, we can train not only high school graduates looking for careers but also current workers who need to upgrade their skills as technology advances and industries evolve.

One of us (Erick) has done it successfully at his company. The other (Al) has seen it work across Minnesota, and is pushing Congress to incentivize such partnerships so that employers in industries like manufacturing, health care and information technology can find the workers they need to grow and compete.

By 2018, almost two-thirds of the 46 million U.S. jobs that will need to be filled will require at least some postsecondary education. Many of those jobs will be created right here in Minnesota. Disturbingly, a recent Enterprise Minnesota survey found that since 2010, the percentage our state’s manufacturers who can’t find qualified workers has grown from 40 percent to 60 percent.

At South Central College in North Mankato last year, Al met with a group of local manufacturers who together had 50 job openings they couldn’t fill with qualified workers. But they weren’t there to complain. They came to show Al the school’s “Right Skills Now” program, which puts students in fast-track credentialing programs to acquire the skills they need for today’s advanced manufacturing jobs.

The program is a partnership between the school and the manufacturers, who have donated some of the expensive high-tech machines that will give students real-world training. In turn, virtually every student in the program is assured of a good-paying job upon graduation and will be armed with skills that employers can put to work immediately.

At Erick’s company, he’s spent years investing in his workers and fostering partnerships with local community and technical colleges to train his employees for high-skilled jobs. He and other local manufacturers actively participate in the “M-Powered” and “Precision Sheet Metal” fast-track training programs at Hennepin and Anoka technical colleges. These partnerships have put more than 30 of Erick’s entry-level employees on a career ladder that would otherwise not be available. He’s hired veterans, single moms, first-generation Americans, youth offenders and, most important, the long-term unemployed. Their training has given them the opportunity for promotions that could double their starting pay within five to seven years.

At a time when college is becoming increasingly unaffordable, Erick has covered the cost for employees pursuing two- and four-year degrees. The result: they graduate with sought-after skills, a postsecondary degree, a higher-paying job, and no college debt.

Erick’s investment in the programs are also good business. He’s built a team that can safely handle high-skilled jobs and has positioned his company to compete profitably and globally.

During a visit last year, “M-Powered” officials told both Al and Erick that the program has already trained hundreds of Minnesotans, with 89 percent in permanent jobs. Similar partnerships in Minnesota are experiencing the same type of success.

Al has gone around Minnesota to community and technical colleges and has talked to businesses and national experts. The fact is, we aren’t forming these partnerships fast enough, and often they could do much more: train more people, provide funding to buy a piece of advanced machinery or hire an instructor with a very specialized skill.

That’s why Al is proposing his Community College to Career Fund Act. It would create a competitive grant program to fund these partnerships. Businesses and community colleges would apply for grants based on how many jobs their partnership would create, what value the jobs would bring to those hired and to the community, and how much “skin in the game” the businesses have.

As we’ve seen here in Minnesota, two-year colleges are an important platform for a career in a wide range of emerging industries, and they can retrain workers when technology outpaces their current skills. For millions of Americans, these schools represent a gateway into good-paying jobs. For employers, they’re an answer to solving the skills gap. And to Minnesotans and our nation, they represent an opportunity to be more competitive in an increasingly global economy.

Erick Ajax is co-owner of E.J. Ajax, based in Fridley. Al Franken, a Democrat, represents Minnesota in the U.S. Senate.

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