Corporate partnerships have been alive and well in high schools across America for decades. But a looming labor shortage, along with a growing urgency to address Minnesota’s unyielding racial achievement gap, is prompting sweeping changes in the way businesses participate in hands-on learning.

The race is on to help students more quickly figure out their interests and aptitudes and then get them trained.

“It’s our imperative to help students understand what 21st century workplace skills are,” said Kathy Funston, who recruits business partners for Burnsville High School’s Pathways program. “We’re able to take your Mom and Dad’s vocational education class and turn it into a highly skilled pre-engineering program.”

The focus is no longer just on students who might be better suited to community college and the trades. Across the state, corporations are donating thousands of dollars as well as their employees’ time to teach students how to do such things as draw architect’s plans, make replacement parts with 3-D printers, write computer code, create marketing campaigns and learn basic nursing skills.

Companies such as Polaris, Medtronic and Ergotron are helping to develop curricula at Wayzata High School and are working side-by-side with juniors and seniors through the school’s Compass program.

In northwestern Minnesota, businesses aligned with the Minnesota Innovation Institute have trained more than 40 students at Bemidji High School in mechanical fabrication, basic hydraulics and certified production technology to address the manufacturing skills gap.

The Burnsville school district is embarking on one of the state’s more comprehensive efforts to prepare its students for the work world.

More than 200 businesses are involved in a career-readiness program at the high school, which used a $65 million voter-approved referendum in 2015 plus an annual technology levy of $2.5 million to blow up the traditional learning model and begin working with students as early as the ninth grade on career interests.

“If you don’t get students involved when they’re younger, if you don’t allow them to explore the things that interest them, you snuff that candle out early on,” said Ryan Moffitt, director of service training at Walser Auto Group, where the foundation has given $275,000 to Burnsville High School to upgrade the school with the same state-of-the-art equipment used by dealerships.

“We’re trying to provide foundational knowledge while at the same time provide real-world experience,” Moffitt said. “Students who show potential can very quickly make decisions about whether they want to make a career out of some type of automotive path.”

The auto shop has eight welding machines, a body shop and painting station. Faculty and district employees can bring in their vehicles for repair by students — at $40 per hour rates — where a portion of the money gets reinvested in the program and helps students buy their own tools.

Eventually, the school aims to expand the program beyond engine repair to give students experience working on the sales floor as well as in back-office operations such as finance and accounting.

The breadth of the business partnerships sets Burnsville apart, Funston said. With the bulk of the multimillion-dollar renovation and expansion of the high school now complete, much of the training happens on campus. Juniors and seniors have additional opportunities for field trips to corporate sites.

The new fabrication workshop is at the center of the school, serving as a hub of high-tech activity where “clean technology” has replaced the grittier shop classes of yore.

“We want to attract females and people of color into fields that were traditionally male-oriented,” Funston said. “We want to make sure they have opportunities and access.”

Burnsville High School has won three recent awards for setting up an outpost with Firefly Credit Union to improve financial literacy. It also is one of the only high schools in the state to have a precision metal miller, with Mendell Inc. and other local manufacturers donating materials. A partnership with Fairview Ridges Hospital helps students get real-world experience while helping set them up to earn certificates as certified nursing assistants while still in high school.

Best Buy sends a Geek Squad agent to the school library several times a week to run a help desk and repair service for school computers. Members of the Geek Squad mentor students in the “soft skills” of customer service while also coaching students on laptop repair.

Senior Jake Ellingson was part of an e-mentorship program through Best Buy, and last week toured the company’s Richfield headquarters with classmates and took part in a mock interview.

“It was a good experience to get used to the interviews,” he said.

Students take an online skills assessment and can select one of four career fields — business management and entrepreneurship; arts and global communications; health sciences; and design, engineering and manufacturing technologies. More than just subject matter, the courses promote teamwork, interpersonal communication and other problem-solving skills needed to be successful in the business world.

The district hopes the investment in the career pathways program will also help stem the outflow of students who have been leaving the district in recent years through open enrollment or charter schools.

Senior Fiona Chow has applied to a dozen colleges and said she feels well prepared to study software engineering or computer science after two years in the program.

She’s in midst of working with two other students to design an augmented reality sandbox for a local elementary school.

“Every day is a new challenge,” she said. “I like the aspect of working together with my teammates and then working with an outside client to collaborate and get the best solution."