Skills gap discussion in Owatonna brings manufacturers and educators around the table

Skills gap discussion in Owatonna brings manufacturers and educators around the table

Owatonna, Minnesota—January 31, 2013

Wintry weather didn’t discourage 60+ manufacturers, human resource managers, educators, mayors, school superintendents, and other concerned Southern Minnesota representatives from convening in Owatonna on Thursday. The group was invited jointly by Doherty Staffing Vice President Gauher Mohammad and Riverland Community College to participate in a discussion,“Planning Tomorrow’s Workforce,” on the issue of workforce shortages and future sustainability in the region.

Douglas Friend of Edward Manufacturing in Albert Lea discusses the impact of skills gap issues on his business.

Manufacturers in region face worker shortage

A 2011 survey carried out by the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development found that 67 percent of Minnesota manufacturers consider a “high-performance workforce” to be the number one requirement for success and, as a result, the biggest challenge. According to the survey report[1], “Workforce shortages are a potential cause for concern for Minnesota businesses. Close to half of respondents (47 percent) had positions that were unfilled due to lack of qualified applicants, including 13 percent with 10 percent or more of jobs unfilled.”

Representatives from Owatonna, Medford, Albert Lea, Austin, Glenville, and other communities

Participants in the discussion included Mayors Thomas Kuntz, Lois Nelson, and Vern Rasmussen of Owatonna, Medford, and Albert Lea, respectively. Other participants included representatives from:

  • City of Owatonna and the Owatonna Chamber of Commerce
  • Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development
  • Albert Lea Economic Development Agency
  • Educators from secondary and post-secondary schools in the region

Riverland Community College was co-host for the “Planning Tomorrow’s Workforce” luncheon, and was represented by Mary Davenport, Interim Vice President of Academic and Student Affairs; David Hietala, the Dean of Extended Learning and Academic Affairs; Jan Waller, Dean of Academic Affairs; Mindi Askelson, Director of Placement and K-12 Placement Relations, and other faculty and staff. Other educators included Superintendents, Principals, Assistant Principals, and other representatives from:

  • Medford Public Schools
  • Owatonna Public Schools
  • Albert Lea Public Schools
  • Glenville-Emmons and Grand Meadow Public Schools
  • Austin Public Schools
  • Cardinal Stritch University
  • Owatonna Business Incubator

Business leaders and entrepreneurs contributed to the conversation

Representatives from 17 local and regional businesses made up half of the attendees. The companies that participated in “Planning Tomorrow’s Workforce” included:

  • Tru-Vue
  • Viracon
  • Bosch
  • Cybex International
  • Truth Hardware
  • Modern Metal Products
  • Huber Supply
  • AGCO
  • K & G Manufacturing
  • Edwards Manufacturing
  • Thermo-King
  • Larson Contracting
  • Interstate Packaging Corporation
  • Quality Pork Processors, Inc.
  • RIHM Kenworth
  • Foldcraft Co.
  • Josten’s
  • Workforce Development, Inc.

Discussion led by Doherty Vice President Gauher Mohammad

Owatonna resident and VP for Doherty Staffing, Gauher Mohammad opened the discussion. “When I first started thinking about this problem I asked educators in our local colleges how they find players for their basketball team. They told me that they visit high schools, they talk to the high school coaches, and then they recruit the players that they’re interested in directly and in person. It led me to wonder how aggressive we could be with this approach to attract students into technical programs. We would like to see a proactive plan to get in front of those students.”

Participants explored possible causes of skills gap in region

A number of factors are contributing to the skills gap issue, according to both educators and manufacturers. Some of the attendees cited parental expectations—including their own. The belief that a four-year degree is the ideal for all students is pervasive, according to both groups, and may not be realistic or even desirable, for the student or the community. One educator stated that high schools traditionally measure success by the percentage of seniors who enroll in four-year colleges, as opposed to the percentage who attain a degree in four years. According to the Minnesota Office of Higher Education[1], “the percentage of students who graduate from a Minnesota four-year postsecondary institution after six years is 61 percent.” To members of the panel, this raises the question of whether a larger proportion of high school juniors and seniors would be better served by encouragement toward two-year degrees or other technical training.

Sharing blame for the low four-year graduation rate are rising costs, according to educators. Mary Davenport, Interim Vice President of Academic and Student Affairs for Riverland Community College, explained to the group that in past years state/student education costs in the MNSCU system were approximately 70/30. Budget cuts have flipped that ratio so that now students are responsible for 70% of the burden of tuition and associated costs.

Manufacturing representatives on the panel cited high starting wages—up to $15 an hour in industries such as truck driving—as proof that the skills gap issue is about skills, and not wages. But, there was also general agreement that salary may not be the major driver for students, and that production work may have to overcome an image problem.

Solutions proposed from every sector; committee formed

The lack of labor may be alleviated by better marketing of production careers to students, according to some attendees. Jim Wendorff, Vice President of Human Resources for Viracon, said, “Young people may have a perception of manufacturing facilities as dark, dirty, or grungy, and teachers themselves may not have a good awareness of what the work environment is like in a modern manufacturing operation. We need to market manufacturing better, possibly create some videos, and set up a hotline for teachers so they can easily reach business contacts. Chambers of Commerce can play a role in helping to rebrand manufacturing.” A suggestion of monthly tours of local facilities by both faculty and students met with approval, but some voiced concerns about taking students out of school and missing class time.

Another solution proposed by Gauher Mohammad led back to his opening statement about recruiting. “Recruiting is a time-tested strategy to find the right students and the right athletes for a school. It may be time to more proactively attract young people to the manufacturing industry in Southern Minnesota, and to invest in a dedicated facilitator able to liaise between companies and schools, who can help kids make informed decisions about their best opportunities for careers.”

The multiple local and state-wide organizations that have formed in the last few years to focus attention on skills gap issues may be of limited effectiveness, panelists suggested. One educator remarked that there was “no centralized regional effort that organizes it and aligns all groups.” Before the meeting’s end, Mohammad secured his first volunteer—Edwards Manufacturing Financial Officer Alex Friend—who made the commitment, along with half a dozen others to serve on a committee that represents both business and education sectors and is dedicated to bringing about a more cohesive and comprehensive plan for the region. The committee will hold its first meeting in late February or early March.

Next action to include state and local legislators

The “Planning Tomorrow’s Workforce” event was originally scheduled for December 20, and panelists included Senator Vicki Jensen, Senator Dan Sparks, and State Representative Shannon Savick. However, weather forced a schedule change and the legislators were unable to attend on the 31st due to legislature being in session. A follow-up meeting to present the recommendations from the January discussion to the senators and representative will take place in late February.

Add your voice to the discussion

Riverland Community College, Doherty Staffing, and the member of the skills gap discussion group welcome input from students, workers, and employers, as well as faculty and administrative staff of elementary, secondary, and post-secondary institutions. To share your comments or insights, or to become involved with the ongoing discussions and committee work, please contact Gauher Mohammad at gmohammad@dohertystaffing.com.

About Doherty Staffing Solutions

Doherty, The Employment Experts, is one of the Midwest's largest and most experienced providers of contract and temporary staffing services. Headquartered in Minneapolis for over 35 years, Doherty offers customized workforce solutions to companies doing business in Minnesota and across the nation. Doherty is the largest Minnesota-based staffing firm, Minnesota’s 2nd largest woman-owned business, a Star Tribune Top Workplace since 2014, and the only staffing firm to receive the Minnesota Business Ethics Award.

Doherty operates multiple offices in Southern, Central, and Northern Minnesota, including Owatonna, Jackson, Mankato, Albert Lea, Marshall and Hutchinson.

Learn more about our temporary, temp-to-hire, direct hire, onsite staffing management, and placement services at www.dohertystaffing.com.

About Riverland Community College

Riverland Community College was established on July 1, 1996 with the merging of Austin Community College, Riverland Technical College, and South Central Technical College. A part of the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities System, Riverland has campuses in Albert Lea, Austin, and Owatonna, Minnesota. Riverland’s vision is to be a regional leader in liberal arts and career-technical higher education and an essential link to economic and social vitality. To learn more about Riverland Community College, visit www.riverland.edu.

[1] Facts about Enrollment. Retrieved on February 4, 2013 from http://www.ohe.state.mn.us/mPg.cfm?pageID=945

[1]Ho-Kim, T. (2011, November). Understanding the Worker Needs of Manufacturers: The 2011 Minnesota Skills Gap Report. Retrieved on February 1, 2013 from http://www.positivelyminnesota.com/Data_Publications/Data/Research_Repor...

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