Terri Bonoff is a veteran businesswoman from Minnetonka who served in the Minnesota Senate from 2005 through 2016. She says one of her proudest legislative accomplishments was shepherding through a public-private apprenticeship program designed to provide on-the-job training for high school graduates that also helps them pay for post-high certifications to four-year degrees. She continues to work on the issue and talked recently about the PIPELINE Project.

Q: The growing tide of student debt is a mounting concern at the same time we have a shortage of skilled workers. How does your work address this?

A: Saddling young people with insurmountable debt without a clear path for repayment, as well as leaving our businesses … with a lack of future talent must stop. In 2014, the Legislature, in partnership with the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce and the Dayton administration, developed a strategy that holds the potential to transform this dilemma. We were successful in passing groundbreaking legislation in 2014 and 2015 that built the foundation of the PIPELINE Project, which is a dual-training program aimed at eliminating student debt and addressing the "skills gap." Additional legislation passed in 2016 and 2017 to continue the project's growth. Currently, 600 companies are participating in the Minnesota PIPELINE Project — an acronym that stands for "private investment, public education, labor and industry experience."

Apprenticeships have been part of our job-training approach since America was founded and continue to be successfully used by trade unions. Apprenticeships and other forms of dual-training are used to train over half of the current postsecondary students in countries such as Germany and Sweden. PIPELINE is built on this dual-training approach. Students receive simultaneous and complementary classroom education and on-the-job training.

Q: How does it work?

A: Companies invest time and resources on the front end by identifying a training provider and working with them to establish and ensure an apprenticeship-style program can be successful at their organization. Companies then hire students while they are in postsecondary school working to get a credential that is related to their employment. Students receive wages and on-the-job training while also attending a postsecondary program to get a credential whether a certificate, technical, associates or bachelor's degree. Participating companies train, pay wages and supplement tuition assistance, and in return reap the rewards that come from having trained loyal employees.

Q: What has been invested and the results so far?

A: To date we have awarded $3,395,000 in [state] grant dollars. These dollars are administered by the Office of Higher Education. Students, in partnership with their employer, have access to tuition grants toward a degree-bearing program that delivers on the competency standards that are in demand in that industry. The bulk of the public dollars go toward tuition assistance, but can also be used toward student fees and required books and materials. Large companies [$25 million-plus in revenue] also provide matching dollars to supplement tuition assistance. They have invested over $300,000 in matching funds. There are 671 students who have received grants and are participating in dual-training programs.

Q: Are there targeted industries that are experiencing job shortages?

A: There are four key industries in Minnesota that are experiencing labor shortages. The legislation called for the creation of four advisory councils in high-growth, high-need industries: agriculture; advanced manufacturing, health sciences and IT. These councils, made up of industry leaders, educational experts, legislators and agency staff, were then charged with identifying jobs in high-demand and high-growth areas for each industry that were suited for a dual-education approach. Once the jobs were chosen, competency standards were developed and grant dollars were then made available to these employers. There are currently 22 job position types identified.

Q: What results are there that indicate this is working?

A: The questions employers are asking today are starkly different than they were three years ago when they were just trying to understand the concept. Today, employers who are engaged and champions of this strategy understand their role in training their workforce and partnering with training providers. In addition, the PIPELINE Project is award-winning and nationally recognized. Forbes wrote about this project twice. The Department of Labor won an award for leadership. There is national momentum to build on this important transformational program.

Q: Do you plan to stay involved as a private citizen?

A: It is so important that we integrate this approach into our K-12 system. There is no formalized process to generate awareness and interest in dual education among high school students or to connect them with the employers. I split my time currently between Atlanta and the Twin Cities as a result of my husband taking a position with Delta Air Lines. I discovered that leaders in Georgia also understand the potential of dual education and are working to implement this. I am going to lead a pilot program focusing on this issue, in partnership with Georgia Tech and an organization that manages transformative Atlanta charter schools.