Anoka County employers looking to hire skilled workers or train employees they already have are getting a huge helping hand from the Anoka Area Chamber of Commerce, which is believed to be the first chamber to be awarded a state grant to help businesses meet their workforce needs.

Typically employers have to apply for the Minnesota Dual-Training Pipeline grants from the Minnesota Office of Higher Education and the Department of Labor and Industry. But this summer the Anoka Area Chamber did the legwork for employers who don't always have the time or know-how to apply for the grant.

"We removed all the barriers that would be in place for employers who are not set up for it," said John LeTourneau, the chamber's director of manufacturing. "This has not been done before. The intent is to become a partner with the community."

The chamber received about $120,000 and is using the grant to help about nine employers send workers to Anoka Technical College to take courses on everything from introduction to machines to blueprint reading to machine tool theory. The purpose of the grant is to allow employees to earn a wide variety of industry-recognized degrees, certificates and credentials that will help them improve their skills and advance their careers, LeTourneau said.

Twice a week, Simon Smith leaves his job at Kurt Manufacturing in Fridley and heads to class. The 23-year-old machinist from Circle Pines said going back to school after a few years away was a little daunting at first, but the prospect of learning new skills and earning a certificate sold him on the idea.

"I am learning how to run machines and new technology that I can apply here," he said. "I'm excited to bring back skills and be a mentor."

Smith earns his salary while attending classes, which will run through May.

Kurt, which makes machine parts and metal components and products for a variety of industries, applied for and received Dual-Training Pipeline grants on its own in the past, but partnered with the chamber this year.

The company's new hires who have entered the earn-as-you-learn program have included former fast-food restaurant and liquor store managers who wanted to learn and current employees with good attitudes.

"The job market is crazy and it's hard to find people," said Taylor Erickson, who works in Kurt's human resources department. "If they wanted to learn, we hired them on."

Grant funds can be used to cover the cost of trainees' tuition, fees and required materials. Kurt has four employees attending classes this year.

"I got my start in this business by going to tech school," said Tim Nelson, Kurt's machining division manager. "We are always in the need for skilled, trained machinists. Employees have asked for further training to get the next level of pay or experience. This was a great opportunity."

Nelson said the education will allow employees to understand the hows and whys behind running multimillion-dollar machines: "The things we don't always have time to explain."

This year, more than $2.2 million in Dual-Training grants were awarded to employers across Minnesota. The grants will support 35 employers statewide in advanced manufacturing, 29 in health care and three in information technology.

LeTourneau said the chamber, which is one of the oldest in the state, said part of its mission is to support local manufacturing. Through the grant, the chamber can help employers find workers with skills they need and give workers the chance to develop skills to advance their careers and salaries or gain access to employment without accumulating large amounts of student debt.

"We are super excited about this," he said. "This translates into a healthier community."

For workers, LeTourneau said, grant funding will provide the chance to buy homes, start a family and shop where they already live.

"This is an amazing opportunity for both employees and our company," Erickson said. "It's so valuable."

Tim Harlow • 612-673-7768