DULUTH — Lake Superior College wants to expand and relocate its manufacturing campus after years of leasing a downtown facility it says it has outgrown.

It is asking the state to invest up to $14 million to make that happen.

Gov. Tim Walz is backing the proposal with about a $1 million bonding request at the Legislature this year to help plan the project. It is expected to cost $12 million to $14 million in state money and take several years to complete.

About 28,000 square feet of space would be renovated and more than 12,000 square feet added for advanced manufacturing, welding, electronic labs and machining. The new space will be better connected to related classes and campus resources — including new on-campus housing, also in the works — and save $165,000 a year, according to Daniel Fanning, vice president for institutional advancement and external relations for Lake Superior College. It will also give the programs room to grow.

"The introductory class has doubled in size in the past year," Fanning said. "To me, that's pretty symbolic of the future."

Lake Superior College is part of the Minnesota State system and has more than 5,000 students. Manufacturing program enrollment grew by 7% in the past year.

Nearly half of all manufacturing companies surveyed by Enterprise Minnesota last year said attracting and retaining a workforce is their number-one impediment to growth. Even more of those companies, especially in Greater Minnesota, say the shortage has at least made growth difficult.

"There's an incredible need," said Ian Vincent, senior business developer with Duluth-based business booster APEX. "Local placement of students is our utmost priority, and we think it should be the region's priority."

Even if firms aren't adding employees, workers will in many cases need to be replaced as the bubble of baby boomer retirements continues to grow.

More than a quarter of Minnesota manufacturing employees are 55 or older — up from 18% a decade ago, according to state figures.

Statewide, younger workers have been slow to fill the gaps, though in St. Louis County the manufacturing workforce has started to skew younger.

Growing interest

While Lake Superior College's manufacturing classes have long been the territory of older students, recent high school graduates are increasingly entering the program.

Gavin Sumner, in fact, is still in high school. And working at local kitchen supply manufacturer Epicurean.

He was first exposed to advanced manufacturing through the robotics program at Duluth East High School and decided to get a head start on his career through the Post Secondary Enrollment Option.

"It's nice, at LSC I can get a lot more into it," said Sumner, 17. "Everything I learn here I can bring with me anywhere."

Brandon Tessier, meanwhile, is looking for a career change. The 35-year-old is getting out of retail and studying CNC machining and is confident there's a future for him in manufacturing, right near home.

Demand is so high some students are hired away before they get a chance to complete the program, said instructor Max Udovich.

"Every student that wants to work can have a job — while they're going to school," he said.

Brooks Johnson • 218-491-6496