A bill pitched by U.S. Sen. Al Franken this week could bridge the job skills gap and give students the training, tuition and real-world internships needed to fill 3.5 million job openings, Franken said Thursday.

"I've sat down with far too many businesses across Minnesota that have job openings they can't fill because they can't find workers with the right skills," Franken said during a conference call with Fridley business owner and well-known job trainer Erick Ajax.

The answer to the skills gap — which affects a third of all manufacturers — lies in "the successful partnerships I've seen in Minnesota, where businesses and community colleges come together to train the workers they need," Franken said. "I know [this] is a common-sense way to solve this problem and get people to work, which is why I'm introducing this bill."

If it passes, Franken's bill, dubbed the Community College to Career Fund Act, would create a multibillion-dollar grant program to fund partnerships between businesses and two-year colleges that would address the skills gap. The partnerships would give more students on-the-job training, paid apprenticeships and internships and a rigorous curriculum at community colleges and technical schools.

The model is standard practice with many other countries but has limited reach here in the United States, Franken said, though he applauded Minnesota training programs such as Right Skills Now, M-Power and Fast Track.

Franken's initiative could boost the skill set of U.S. workers, drive more manufacturing jobs back to the United States and prepare workers for the new generation of factory, energy, IT and health care jobs. But first, Congress needs to act, he said.

Franken complained that two-year community and technical colleges only receive $2 billion in federal funds, while four-year colleges receive $20 billion in federal aid.

So far, the bill has won the support of Minnesota State Colleges and Universities (MnSCU), Dunwoody College of Technology, South Central College, the Minnesota Precision Manufacturing Association, Wyoming Machine and E.J. Ajax Metal Forming Solutions.

Franken has toured Minnesota factories and schools with business owner Ajax and modeled his bill after what Ajax has done at his factory in Fridley.

Ajax, co-owner of the E.J. Ajax & Sons metal stamping operation, told reporters Thursday that he has trained, hired and paid the college tuition for more than 30 students, veterans and ex-cons by working with Hennepin County Technical College.

His company, which makes 70 percent of North America's appliance hinges, needed workers trained on computerized manufacturing machines. To get workers up to snuff, he partnered with local community and technical schools, provided paid on-the-job training at his factory and paid 100 percent of his workers' tuition, said Ajax, who employs 53 and provides apprenticeships for 13 journeymen.

Franken said such stories are thrilling. "This is the kind of thing that just excites me. It literally gives me chills," he said. "This is what we need to be doing. This is why I came to the Senate."

Right now, his bill is a stand-alone effort, but could find its way into the larger Work Force Investment Act, which is under review in the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pension Committee.