The delegation gathered on Dakota County Technical College’s Rosemount campus featured a “Who’s Who” of local dignitaries: state lawmakers, school superintendents, the city’s mayor and county leaders.

One after another, employers desperate for workers told them how they teamed up with the college, which overhauled curricula with input from their businesses and supplied interns, apprentices and employees.

The recent visit was one of Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system Chancellor Devinder Malhotra’s “partnership tours” — a string of events on campuses statewide to tout efforts to solve workforce shortages and brainstorm new ways to help employers.

The tours are part of the chancellor’s more muscular approach to marketing the Minnesota State system — long stuck in the University of Minnesota’s shadow — as an economic driver for state. The system and its institutions recently paid $175,500 for a study that found employees at 37 universities and community colleges and their vendors injected $8 billion in the state’s economy last fiscal year.

Malhotra, who took over permanently in January, is also building a case for a major increase in funding from the Legislature, including an additional $15 million for career technical education.

“The size and scope of our work is already substantial,” Malhotra said. “But given the magnitude of workforce shortages, we need to accelerate our efforts.”

‘Best-kept secrets’

Malhotra says he launched the tours with several goals in mind. They showcase how “embedded” the colleges and universities are in their local communities. They help the campuses enlist new allies locally and in the Legislature. And they yield fresh ways the system, which awards roughly 39,000 degrees and certificates a year, can work closely with employers.

Since August, campuses in St. Cloud, Brainerd, Bemidji, Moorhead, and elsewhere have hosted the tours, and more stops are planned for later this year. At its tour in October, Lake Superior College showed off its aircraft maintenance technician program, which it launched as part of a 2012 citywide effort to lure aviation services company AAR to Duluth.

A conversation with AAR reps during the tour sparked two new ideas to build on the partnership — a paid apprenticeship for two student machinists and a new tuition reimbursement program for students who commit to join AAR. The company is competing with other employers, including Delta Air Lines, to recruit graduates, said college President Patrick Johns.

On the Dakota County Technical College (DCTC) campus, Michael Berndt, the interim president there and at its sister Inver Hills Community College, kicked off the tour by rattling off job vacancy numbers in manufacturing, construction and health care.

“Many of you have shared with me that DCTC and Inver Hills are best-kept secrets in the communities we serve,” he said. “We have been working hard to fix that.”

Visitors looked away from sparks flying in the campus welding shop, marched past a long row of semitrailer truck cabs and paused in a room where nursing assistant students can practice drawing blood on mannequins in hospital gowns. They heard how BTD Manufacturing, with a facility in Lakeville, offers input on welding curricula, donates its scrap metal to the college and hires students well before they graduate from the program.

Tom Jensen of Alliant Engineering said he once told campus officials the company had to retrain graduates extensively. The following week, a group of 10 faculty and administrators arrived at his office to discuss how to adjust the curriculum. Alliant, which has about 20 job openings, was among local employers who pitched in more than half a million dollars for a new civil engineering scholarship to boost the ranks of graduates.

“We are placing students their first semester,” said Jeff Copeland, a senior instructor in DCTC’s automotive technology program. “As soon as they walk in the door, they have multiple job offers waiting for them.”

Seeking allies

The Minnesota State system is the state’s 11th largest employer. Jobs on campus and at businesses that work with member institutions generate $458.5 million in state and local taxes, according to a new analysis the system released earlier this month. For every dollar in state appropriations for the system, it generates about $12 in economic activity — an average return on investment for public higher education systems, said Nicole Parker of Parker Phillips, the firm that conducted the study.

The timing of the study is opportune: Minnesota State is gearing up to ask lawmakers for $246 million more in state money over two years, or a hike of more than 17 percent for the biennium. The money would fund employee pay increases and other operational costs as well as a new information management system, new scholarship programs and the push to address workforce shortages.

At Malhotra’s invitation, Sen. Rich Draheim, R-Madison Lake, a leader on the state Senate’s higher education committee, attended tours in Marshall and at DCTC. He said they offered bracing examples of “thinking outside the box” in tackling education achievement gaps and worker shortages in high-demand fields.

“In partnering with industry, you have state-of-the-art equipment and real-life experiences for students,” he said. “It’s a win-win for everybody.”

But he said he remains skeptical about the system’s ambitious funding request, adding he’d like to see leaner administration on some of its larger campuses: “It’s a tough ask for me.”

Faculty have at times voiced discomfort in recent years with courting employers while some campuses cut humanities offerings. But leaders at the system’s two faculty unions said they support Malhotra’s efforts to nurture campus ties with surrounding communities.

Kevin Lindstrom, president of the Minnesota State College Faculty, called the chancellor a “great ambassador” for the system.

Brent Jeffers, who leads the union representing university professors, notes that meeting the needs of employers doesn’t have to come at the expense of a well-rounded education.

“We are confident Chancellor Malhotra has heard from our communities what we hear all the time: Employers are looking for employees with multiple skills, not just relevant training to a specific job,” he said.