Minnesotans have much to be proud of, including the third-highest labor-force participation rate in the country and an unemployment rate below the national average for 10 years running.

Even so, a shortage of skilled workers is impeding Minnesota’s economic growth. By 2024, projections show a gap of 400,000 workers needed to fill middle-skill jobs — those requiring education beyond high school but not a four-year degree.

My organization, ECMC Group, recently hosted several experts to discuss the biggest issues facing the education, training and workforce industries as part of the annual MN Cup competition. Panelists emphasized that the rising cost of traditional four-year college is an opportunity to spur changes to our outdated workforce training model.

Every year, high school students say the same thing: They are enrolling in college — particularly four-year institutions — to find a job. Yet only 27% of four-year degree holders are working in a job directly related to their college major, with many underemployed.

And students are getting left behind financially while businesses aren’t finding the supply of trained workers they need. Aanand Radia, managing director of University Ventures, summarized this concisely, “Clearly, the way higher education is set up today and how it’s traditionally been set up is not going to answer the needs of what employers want and to shrink the skills gap.”

It’s long past time to expand our horizons. Many don’t realize that middle-skill credentials, like an associate degree or training program certificate, can lead to an equally well-paying job and long-term career growth as a four-year degree but at a significantly lower cost.

Instead, Americans still see traditional four-year higher education as the only pathway to the middle class. Panelist Mitch DeJong, chief technology officer of Brooklyn Park manufacturer Design Ready Controls, called it the “dirty hands stigma” where middle-skills jobs are considered less-desirable or for the less-intelligent. In reality, these “new collar” jobs also typically require strong backgrounds in mathematics, critical thinking and collaboration.

Kim Taylor, CEO of job-matching software provider Cluster, similarly lamented the stereotype that “if you don’t go to college, you have somehow lost the opportunity to be successful.” She rightly emphasized how elitist that notion can be, “knowing that two-thirds of Americans don’t have a college degree.”

Instead of leaning on four-year institutions as the only option for workforce preparation, policymakers, businesses and higher-education leaders should champion alternatives including career and technical education programs and “learn and earn” models to equip students with the skills needed for the 21st-century workforce.

Thanks to collaboration between local employers and the Department of Labor, apprenticeships in Minnesota have grown nearly 30% over the last five years. But we cannot close the middle-skills gap without first diversifying the middle-skills workforce. White men often dominate high-wage apprenticeships, in fields like construction, while workers of color and women are overrepresented in lower-wage programs.

Last month, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., reintroduced bipartisan legislation with Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, to increase funding for tuition-assistance programs for participants in pre-apprenticeship and apprenticeship programs. Speaking about her bill, Sen. Klobuchar rightly emphasized, “Today, there isn’t just one path to success — there are many ways to access the skills and education necessary to get a high-paying and rewarding job.”

During our discussion, DeJong and fellow local employer Louis King, president and CEO of Minneapolis’ Summit Academy OIC, spoke candidly about how they’ve diversified their recruitment and training efforts. When underserved populations can’t get the quality, affordable education and training they need, Minnesota employers face more severe skills gaps. As King said, while we search for skills-gap solutions, there is already “a workforce hiding in plain sight.”

Our workforce needs are changing, and it is time for our attitudes about what will put students on the best pathway to success to change as well.

If local policymakers, employers and educators can work together to train more people in more effective ways, shaping them into lifelong learners and valued employees, the country will Minnesota a debt of gratitude — and that is a far better debt to carry.


Jeremy J. Wheaton is the president and chief executive of Minneapolis-based ECMC Group, where he creates and executes strategic initiatives for ECMC Group and its affiliates, and the president and CEO for Zenith Education Group, a nonprofit provider of career school training.


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