Minnesota community colleges received $16 million in federal grants to expand manufacturing job-training programs, the U.S. Department of Labor announced Wednesday.

The grants are part of $500 million in federal funds designated for 297 colleges nationwide to create training that gives factory workers the high-tech skills needed to remain competitive. With automation becoming so widespread in U.S. factories, many assembly workers have been forced to acquire software and engineering skills to perform their jobs.

As part of the initiative, Central Lakes College in Brainerd received $13.1 million. It will lead a multi-college consortium on advanced manufacturing skills on behalf of the state. Consortium members include Pine Technical College, St. Cloud Technical and Community College and the 360 Degree Center of Excellence at Bemidji State University.

Separately, Hennepin Technical College received just under $3 million to expand its manufacturing assessment and advancement centers. The goal there will be to establish "one-stop centers for compressed skill attainment," Labor officials said. This is the second federal training grant Hennepin has received. A bio-technology training grant expired in June.

As for the manufacturing grant, Joe Mulford, Hennepin Tech's dean of customized training, said: "We are excited. ... We got the call this morning."

Hennepin Tech now has eight virtual welding training computers at its Brooklyn Park campus. The grant will help buy a second set for its Eden Prairie campus and a third for a Minnesota Workforce Center in Bloomington.

The computers will let more students practice software code writing and control panel functions before ever stepping near the school's few $100,000 welding machines, Mulford said. With the grant, he should be able to teach 800 manufacturing students a year instead of 200.

All of the grants should help create affordable courses, training for teachers, and cover the cost of educational and digital learning materials. The funding will also better connect community colleges, universities and employers and give students the skills they need for high-wage careers, said U.S. Labor Secretary. Hilda Solis in a statement.

For years, manufacturing firms have been automating factories with robotics, computer-controlled assembly machines and other equipment that requires software and engineering skills that many assembly line workers haven't had.

"Particularly in manufacturing, the skill sets that are required have certainly been changing rapidly," said Steve Hine, director of Minnesota's Labor Market Information Office. "To adapt to all these changes, training is necessary."

The Department of Labor and the U.S. Department of Education are implementing the grant program.

Dee DePass • 612-673-7725