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Coon Rapids works to keep manufacturing momentum

  • Article by: Sarah Barchus
  • Star Tribune
  • April 15, 2014 - 3:47 PM

The manufacturing industry in Coon Rapids is on the rebound from the economic downturn, and the city is working to maintain the momentum, officials say.

Manufacturing jobs in Anoka County’s largest city increased by 19.6 percent between 2010 and 2012, according to a survey conducted by the city as part of its Business Retention and Expansion Strategies program (BR&E).

“[The industry] gained back the jobs lost in the recession,” said Matt Brown, Coon Rapids’ community development specialist. The city surpassed its previous high point for manufacturing jobs — 3,216 in 2008 — with 3,251 in 2012, Brown said, citing data from the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development.

According to the most recent data, from the third quarter of 2013, manufacturing jobs totaled 3,088.

“The total employment in Coon Rapids reflects that general trend,” Brown said. “Manufacturing employment tends to ripple into other areas of the economy.”

He said the BR&E program contributed to this growth because it helped maintain a positive business climate for the city.

Coon Rapids launched BR&E in May 2012, when it surveyed the needs of 27 companies, mostly in the manufacturing sector, to see how the community could better support local business. The companies could also request individually tailored feedback from the city.

“The BR&E was not so much designed to solve problems, but to identify needs,” said Marc Nevinski, the city’s community development director and a BR&E leadership member.

According to the survey, 37 percent of businesses said they had problems hiring skilled manufacturing workers. The businesses identified competition for employees and inadequate labor skills as the biggest challenges.

The BR&E team came up with five projects and initiatives designed to support businesses, said Michael Wall, development director at Anoka-Ramsey Community College and another BR&E leadership member.

For example, he and Matt Salo, also part of the BR&E leadership and manager of the biotechnology department at Anoka-Ramsey, worked on a business event where they invited manufacturing companies to interact with each other and with students at the college.

Although the official BR&E program ended in April 2013, the city continues to focus on open communication with the business community.

“A big part of [the program] was building and maintaining relationships with businesses,” Brown said.

Getting the schools involved

That effort extended to the local schools through events like the manufacturing expo that Wall and Salo organized at Anoka-Ramsey Community College during the 2013 Minnesota Manufacturing Week. The “Inspire” event attracted roughly 160 students as well as manufacturing company representatives and employees, Wall said.

The goal was to “expose students to opportunities here locally, and for businesses to meet,” Wall said.

“Inspire allowed [students] to see what manufacturing today is all about,” said Salo. “It’s not all production and assembly works.”

The city is fortunate to have a large community college aligned with a technical college, and businesses that are aware of their training programs, Nevinski said. Fixing the job-skill gap is a tough issue for the city to solve, he said. “At some point businesses are happy to get warm bodies in the door.”

“The college is constantly working with community businesses to find out what the needs are,” Wall said. The schools take those current needs and predictions of future needs into account when planning curricula. “The farther out we can plan out, the more effective [they are.]”

The community college is experiencing a shift as students are demanding more from the college than broad, transfer-focused education, Salo said. “Students are saying, ‘What can I do after two years?’ ” The school — which recently added a visual arts center and renovated a music building — is trying to create a balance between technical training and liberal arts education, Salo said. “It’s great to have a student who can wear many hats, but when you need an expert, where can you find them?” Salo said.

The Biomedical Technology department, for example, is taking strides toward producing career-ready graduates. It is working on a concept for a class called “Technical Pivot” where students would work on practical projects and learn industry-applicable skills, like how to read a blueprint, Salo said.

Future plans

“I don’t know that we have a special strategy [for further improvement], but we will continue to do what we have always done,” Nevinski said. That includes continuing the Economic Gardening program, which each year takes on companies with midrange sales and provides them with 40 hours of service tailored to their needs with the goal of taking them to the next level, he said.

 

Sarah Barchus is a University of Minnesota student reporter on assignment for the Star Tribune.

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