Mind the gap

Fergus Falls educators, manufacturers take on the skills gap

Facing an increasing shortage of skilled employees to fill jobs vacated by retiring Baby Boomers, manufacturers, educators and civic leaders in Fergus Falls teamed up last year to outfit a state-of-the-art manufacturing lab in the local high school— funded entirely by private donations.

This triumph of community initiative prompted several representatives of Center of the American Experiment (CAE) to join longtime local legislator Bud Nornes in July for a meeting to discover how activists raised almost $320,000 for high tech improvements to the lab in less than six months.

“This is an example of what can happen when you have outstanding community leaders,” Ron Eibensteiner told an audience of more than 60 people in the Roosevelt meeting room in the Fergus Falls’ secondary school. Eibensteiner, a Minneapolis-based venture capitalist, is board chairman at CAE.

Eibensteiner coauthored the chapter on job creation in the Center’s Minnesota Policy Blueprint, published last year. He was joined by CAE’s Peter Nelson, vice president and senior policy fellow.

A panel of educators, manufacturers and community activists said the idea was conceived at the local Rotary when Evan Westra and Mike Westergard formed a working group to address the worsening skills gap. Westra owns West Tool and Design and Westerberg is director of manufacturing at StoneL.

“My motivation was to get young people to be able to go into the trades,” Westra said.

The high school shop at the time, he said, misrepresented modern manufacturing. The large, dimly-lit facility had been accumulating dirt and grime since it was first acquired in the 1960s.

Fellow Rotarian Kim Embretson, then a development specialist at the Fergus Falls-based West Central Initiative, surmised the shop needed more than a paint job. “We needed something that would inspire students to say, “Whoa, this is really interesting.” Embretson spearheaded the fundraising.

New equipment would show students that modern manufacturing “isn’t working in grease and dirt, and dingy conditions. It is pretty modern and cutting edge, and a lot of it is computer based,” according to Westergard.

The teachers delivered a wish list of equipment that included an array of CNC welding equipment, in addition to plans to clean and repaint the facility, to install epoxy flooring, a new exhaust system, and new lighting. The price tag: close to $350,000.

In six months the group had commitments for $240,000. The final tab for the project came in at $317,000. In addition, local manufacturers volunteered to loan their tech people to set up the

machines and help show the students how they work.

But the bigger accomplishment, the teachers agree, is that they can now show students and parents the possibilities in manufacturing. “It’s exciting and new every day. I think it’s our job to make sure students know that and understand that it’s not what it was even 10 years ago,” Wutzke says.

“I don’t need to describe the importance that manufacturers have to their communities, particularly in Greater Minnesota,” said Eibensteiner, who grew up on a farm not far south from Fergus Falls.

“Manufacturers form the bedrock of many Minnesota communities. They offer high-wage, high-skill jobs that create economic opportunity and stability,” he said, adding a list of statistics.

•Half of Minnesota’s 7,400 manufacturers operate in Greater Minnesota.

•They represent the largest private sector component of Minnesota’s GDP.

•They provide 13 percent of all jobs in Minnesota and 16 percent of all wages paid. They pay 21.6 percent higher than the average wage for all industries.

The event was co-hosted by Bud Nornes, long time legislator from Fergus Falls. Panelists included: Kim Embretson, retired executive at the West Central Initiative; Evan Westra, owner, West Tool & Design; plus Jerry Ness, superintendent; Mike Donaghue, instructor; and Dennis Wutzke, instructor, all from the Fergus Falls Public Schools. Other participants included Peggy Kennedy, president, Minnesota State Community and Technical College, Fergus Falls; and Brad Barth, president, West Central Initiative.