The late Leon Rankin, a 1960s Dunwoody College graduate, was one of Minnesota’s first black master electricians and contractors.

A soft-spoken community and civil rights leader, Rankin went on to earn a graduate degree from St. Mary’s University and became a counselor and administrator at Dunwoody, the private trade college located near Loring Park.

Rankin, who died in 2015, would be pleased with the progress of Michael Simmons, a two-year Dunwoody graduate who does work in transmission design and engineering with Xcel Energy.

Hundreds of minority and female Dunwoody graduates like Simmons have gone on to good technical careers since Rankin and retired Dunwoody President Warren Phillips launched a career program in 1988 that sought to diversify the mostly white male ranks of Dunwoody students.

It’s slowly working at Dunwoody and in the Twin Cities, where minority hiring in construction, technology and health care since 2010, albeit still not representative of their proportional population, is growing faster than the overall job market.

“I work on transmission lines,” said Simmons, 27, who works for placement-firm Entegee that subcontracts some technical work for Xcel. “I create subassemblies for the hardware that holds up the conductors.

“I have an associate degree, and I’ve gone back to Dunwoody to get a four-year degree in industrial engineering. I can advance further with a four-year degree. I will be able to manage employees and help our company produce reliable products and reduce waste.”

Simmons is a Washburn High School graduate who grew interested in engineering through Dunwoody’s Youth Career Awareness Program (YCAP), a program that Rankin designed that is credited with bringing more than 2,000 “underrepresented” high school students to Dunwoody for six-week paid internships to explore technical education and career opportunities.

More than 1,300 of those students have gone on to earn degrees at Dunwoody or elsewhere.

And graduates of YCAP who attend century-old Dunwoody typically receive scholarships valued at $20,000-plus.

In a 1993 Star Tribune interview, Rankin, who at the time was the admissions and minority affairs director at Dunwoody, expressed optimism in the program because it recruited sophomores and juniors in high school who showed an interest in technical careers.

The program helped connect the importance of “high school academics” with myriad career possibilities at Dunwoody, including computers, automotive, robotics and engineering.

“We think it’s working well,” Rankin said in 1993.

Two thirds of this summer’s YCAP interns are students of color. In all, 2,000 high school students have gone through YCAP since 1988.

Meanwhile, Dunwoody’s nearly all-white, male student population has evolved to become 19 percent minorities and 14 percent women, said Peggy Quam, the Dunwoody administrator who oversees the program.

“Leon was a very humble man and a great thinker,” recalled Dunwoody’s Bill Jordan, a colleague for many years and who once ran the school’s HVAC program and now manages its facilities. “Highly intelligent. He’s looking down at [Dunwoody] right now. And he’s happy. We both believed that Dunwoody could do this for this community.”

The success of the program also good for the Twin Cities economy, which hungers for more skilled workers.

As the Twin Cities population grows more diverse, there is challenge and opportunity to train even more minority students for family-supporting, good-paying jobs that once were largely unavailable to minorities and women.

Simmons recalled that he had an interest at Washburn High in aviation, another in-demand field.

That broadened when his mom sent him to YCAP before his junior year.

It was an interesting internship that exposed him to careers, company visits and helped him connect why it made sense to do well in math, science and other classes.

Jisell Jude, a 2012 Dunwoody graduate, works as a computer-aided designer for Uponor, the fast-growing plumbing systems manufacturer that employs hundreds at its expanding North American base in Apple Valley.

“I went through the YCAP program in high school,” said the Maple Grove High School graduate.

“I graduated with an associate degree in architectural drafting, in 2010, from Dunwoody, and then a bachelors in applied management in 2012,” Jude said. “I was a minority in that program. It was about 90 percent white guys. And I got a scholarship. It was hard, but it was worth it.”


Neal St. Anthony has been a Star Tribune business columnist and reporter since 1984. He can be contacted at