Minnesota employers complain they are struggling with severe worker shortages, the lowest unemployment rates in decades and new hires who simply lack the skills needed for today’s technically demanding jobs. The Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED) is the state’s agency in charge of driving worker retraining and skills development programs across the state. DEED Commissioner Shawntera Hardy said the most recent jobs data show more than 97,000 open positions. That’s about a 1:1 ratio when compared against the number of people currently looking for work. Here is the rest of the interview with Hardy, edited for length and clarity.

Q: What challenges exist today when it comes to ensuring Minnesota’s workforce is well-trained and ready for hire?

A: Minnesota, like many other states, is facing a workforce shortage. Over the next decade, we will see many baby boomers exiting the workforce for retirement. Finding workers with the necessary skills and limited barriers to work have become huge challenges. Employers are not only relying on traditional hiring and training methods but they’re also investing more in apprenticeships and career pathway opportunities. These programs are opening the doors to workers who in the past have been left on the sideline. 

Q: What is the budget and how is it apportioned?

A: Of DEED’s $485.4 million budget, 80 percent goes out the door in aid, 75 percent of that money toward workforce development. For example, the Minnesota Job Skills Partnership [MJSP]— which reports to a board of business, education and labor representatives — has already given out $3.9 million this year, most going to training programs in the high-demand areas of health care, pharmaceutical, manufacturing and construction jobs. Others include Pathways to Prosperity, which focuses on employees with barriers to employment such as child care and transportation, and the Vocational Rehabilitation Program, which helps individuals with disabilities with employment training opportunities. 

Q: You noted the state approaches worker-skills training with the help of several partners. Who are some of them?

A: In our agency, we have close to 70 different programs. We partner with local workforce boards throughout the state to deliver services. We work with nonprofit partners like the local YMCAs and YWCAs, Twin Cities Rise, Goodwill, HIRED and Ujamaa Place — to name a few. And we also work with our sister agencies such as the Department of Labor and Industry, Department of Education and Department of Human Services. We partner with corporate employers that offer internships and apprenticeships so that new workers can get the on-the-job training. 

Q: What job-training success stories stick out as memorable?

A: One of our partner organizations, Twin Cities Rise, in collaboration with Metro Transit and Hennepin Technical College, will operate the Metro Transit Technician training program. This program is in response to an immediate need for technically skilled workers and has a goal of building a technician pipeline that will make technical career opportunities available to all communities in the Twin Cities. Each program participant will receive hands-on skill development instruction at Metro Transit; personalized coaching; an empowerment curriculum; a paid internship at Metro Transit; and a two-year technical degree at Hennepin Technical College. Twin Cities Rise will also provide 200 low-income adults of color over the next year [with] employment training that includes skills assessments, job search tips, computer and communications training and more. 

Q: Any others?

A: There is medium-sized business in Rochester, Minn., that is doing some exciting work in the food industry. The Kerry Group has a plant in Rochester with 96 workers that produces food ingredients that help preserve meat, inhibit mold and season foods naturally. Kerry has figured out how to do that work and they want to grow in Rochester. Their leadership realized that their operators and maintenance personnel had a gap in knowledge. So in partnership with Rochester Community and Technical College, they approached the MJSP. The result is on-site training for 20 employees. They will learn to use new food drying and sterilizing equipment and will develop mechanical troubleshooting processes that improve factory workflows. Because they are creating new healthier food preservation processes, the college is helping Kerry reposition itself in the industry and creating operational efficiencies that could one day be used by other companies. In these spaces, where you have highly technical skills needed, it’s great to be able to build your own team of experts This is starting with 20 employees, but after the curriculum is created, it will only grow from here. It is developing technical and food knowledge that could possibly be used by large companies such as Cargill or General Mills.