Minnesota High Schools are tackling our state’s “skills gap” crisis head-on

Good news on Minnesota’s workforce development crisis: Innovative high schools are setting the stage for a revolution in career education.

A recent Star Tribune article surveyed this burgeoning movement. “The race is on to help students more quickly figure out their interests and aptitudes and then get them trained,” according to the article.

The Star Tribune highlighted Burnsville High School’s remarkable Pathways program, which it described as one of Minnesota’s most “comprehensive efforts to prepare students for the work world.” The program is funded by a $65 million voter-approved referendum, passed in 2015, and an annual technology levy of $2.5 million. According to the article,

‘It’s our imperative to help students understand what 21st century workplace skills are,’ said Kathy Funstron, who recruits business partners for [the] program.

We are able to take your Mom and Dad’s vocational education class and turn it into a highly skilled pre-engineering program.’

In Burnsville, students begin working on career interests as early as ninth grade. They take online skills assessments and can choose one of four career fields: business management and entrepreneurship, health sciences, arts and global communications, and design, engineering and manufacturing technologies.

More than 200 businesses are involved in the Pathways program. For example, the Walser Auto Group’s foundation has donated $275,000 to upgrade the high school’s auto shop with the same cutting-edge equipment that its dealerships use:

The auto shop has eight welding machines, a body shop and painting station. Faculty and district employees can bring in their vehicles for repair by students—at $40 per hour rates—where a portion of the money gets reinvested in the program and helps students buy their own tools.

And there’s more: Burnsville High’s “new fabrication workshop is at the center of the school, serving as a hub of high tech activity where ‘clean technology’ has replaced the grittier shop classes of yore.”

Firefly Credit Union trains students in financial literacy, and Best Buy sends a Geek Squad representative to the school library to operate a help desk and repair service. The agents teach students about the “soft skills” they need for customer service and also instruct them in laptop repair.

Other Minnesota high schools are launching similar efforts. According to the Star Tribune:

Across the state, corporations are donating thousands of dollars as well as their employees’ time to teach students how to do such things as draw architect’s plans, make replacement parts with 3-D printers, write computer code, create marketing campaigns, and learn basic nursing skills.

Companies such as Polaris, Medtronic, and Ergotron are helping to develop curricula at Wayzata High School and are working side-by-side with juniors and seniors through the school’s Compass program.

In northwestern Minnesota, businesses aligned with the Minnesota Innovation Institute have trained more than 40 students at Bemidji High School in mechanical fabrication, basic hydraulics and certified production technology to address the manufacturing skills gap.

These are just a few of the Minnesota high schools that are moving in transformative ways to address our state’s urgent skills gap—and to put kids on the road to fulfilling, in-demand careers.