Stacy, Minn. – U.S. Sen. Tina Smith spent Friday afternoon meeting welders and machinists in this Chisago County town, where she promised to take a message about Minnesota's labor shortage back to Washington, D.C.
In her first official event since she was sworn in Wednesday, Smith toured the sheet metal manufacturer Wyoming Machine.
"I wanted to make this my first stop, because I know from having been lieutenant governor that Minnesota's great advantage is our fantastic skilled workforce," said Smith, a Democrat. "But our big challenge is that we need to make sure we have enough workers to fill the great jobs that are being created."
The former lieutenant governor is getting acquainted with Congress and pinning down legislative priorities, while preparing to defend her seat in a November special election. She hopes to serve out the last two years of former Sen. Al Franken's term following his resignation over sexual harassment allegations.
State Sen. Karin Housley, R-St. Marys Point, is the only other candidate in the race so far. She was offered the chance to discuss her thoughts on how to solve workforce shortages for this story, but did not respond.
Smith entered a deeply divided Congress polarized by proposals from President Donald Trump that include potential changes to immigration policy and health care.
But Smith has said she plans to concentrate on other priorities as well, such as closing the gap between what employers need and the number of skilled workers available. In Stacy, about 40 minutes north of Minneapolis, she heard about a partnership between Pine Technical and Community College, local schools, employers and Chisago County to get workers the skills they need.
Barb Chaffee left the Wyoming Machine tour encouraged that the new senator would take up their plea for more funding to train and match students with available jobs.
"We have a crisis in the country with manufacturing, health care and transportation," said Chaffee, executive director of Central Minnesota Jobs and Training Services. "We do not have enough people in the pipeline."
State economists have warned of shortages as baby boomers retire, shrinking the state's workforce. Economic development partnership Greater MSP projected that by 2020 the state will have a shortage of 114,000 workers.
The event in Stacy was the first of several Smith will attend over the next few days. She was heading to Duluth for a meeting later Friday with business community members, spokesman Marc Kimball said. She plans to talk with steel workers and pensioners on the Iron Range and discuss rural broadband in Mountain Iron before attending some Twin Cities events.
Broadband access is another topic Smith has said she will focus on, along with access to child care and paid family leave.
Friday's short tour was familiar territory for Smith, who spent the past three years as Gov. Mark Dayton's lieutenant governor. She was a public face for the administration and attended many town hall meetings and events across Minnesota.
In her role as Dayton's No. 2, and as his chief of staff before that, Smith was regarded as a tough but kind facilitator. Many people said she has a knack for finding solutions while working with opposing groups. She was involved in DFL politics in Minnesota long before joining the Dayton administration.
"She has been in politics for a lot of years and she understands she needs to start her job running," said Chaffee, who has worked with Smith on other issues over the years, and is confident she will work hard to accomplish things over the next 10 months.
Smith is a good listener who is not afraid to reach out to people, Chaffee said, and she has a strong staff — many of whom she inherited from Franken.
"The fact that she took time during this really important time for her demonstrates she is going to be interested in this," said Traci Tapani, co-president of Wyoming Machine. "Minnesota is an amazing state and home to many amazing companies, but unless we do something about this workforce issue, economic development is not going to happen here."