Skills gap solutions

CAE town meeting shows how effective public policies don’t have to include government.

A panel of local leaders, educators, and manufacturers demonstrated to Center of the American Experiment how community leadership can be more important than legislation to solving Minnesota’s looming “skills gap.”

Meeting in a conference room just outside the commons area of Alexandria’s impressive new high school, panelists described how community leaders, elected officials, and local manufacturers coalesced to ensure that the school would include a massive new manufacturing lab outfitted with sophisticated high tech equipment, much of it donated by local manufacturers whose employees also provide hands-on instruction.

To get it done, the group privately raised $7 million before going to the public with a bond request to build the school. The energy behind the high school project, they added, formed enduring community attitudes about the value of manufacturing and finding employees to fill their jobs.

“That’s how you help solve the skills gap,” said Ron Eibensteiner, a Minneapolis-based venture capitalist who co-chaired the meeting with Senator Bill Ingebrigtsen. Eibensteiner is board chair at American Experiment.

“We have to remember that this is an era when most schools are shutting down their ‘shop classes,’” Eibensteiner said.

Alexandria is a thriving regional manufacturing hub, creating 18 percent of local jobs. It is home to five of the world’s leading manufacturers of automated packaging machines, marking the region as one of the leaders in technology development and innovation in this industry.

The informal town meeting was the first of up to 15 the Center will host across Minnesota this year on a variety of topics. They are designed to bring real life perspectives to the Center’s Minnesota Policy Blueprint, an ongoing series of public policy recommendations first circulated last year as a book. Eibensteiner coauthored a chapter on job creation in the Center’s Minnesota Policy Blueprint entitled Unleashing Minnesota’s Job Creating Potential.

The Alexandria session included a panel of Alexandria’s educators and manufacturers: Julie Critz, Alexandria’s school superintendent; Tom Ellison, instructor at Alexandria High School; Brent Smith, founder, the Aagard Group; Tom Schabel, Alexandria Industries; and Duane Taillefer, vice president, operations, Massman Automation Designs.

Peter Nelson, the Center’s director of public policy, also participated in the meeting, as did Representative Paul Anderson, a farmer/legislator whose district includes parts of Douglas, Stearns, and Pope Counties.

The Center selected Alexandria as its first meeting because the community’s educators, business community, and elected officials have collaboratedseamlessly to ensure that schools are producing graduates who are ready to meet manufacturers’ needs.

There are more than 6,500 open manufacturing jobs in Minnesota today. Most of those jobs are unfilled because companies can’t find applicants with the skills necessary to work in the increasingly high-tech demands within manufacturing companies.

The National Association of Manufacturers recently projected that almost 60 percent of 3.5 million manufacturing jobs over the next decade will go unfilled as experienced baby boomers retire, and fewer young people acquire needed skills.

“Meetings like this tend too often to look first for legislative solutions,” Eibensteiner said. The Alexandria model demonstrates that “sometimes—maybe most times—the best public policies don’t include government at all.”