Which training programs for skilled workers perform best?

Minnesota employers in manufacturing and the trades continue to grapple with daunting workforce challenges. For example, while the construction industry in our state grew 20 percent from 2014 to 2018, the labor force grew only 2.8 percent from 2013 to 2017, according to Sean O’Neil of the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce.

A recent Star Tribune article assessed the kinds of training programs that are most effectively preparing new workers to replace retiring, highly skilled Baby-boomers. It described the experiences of two employers: Aurelius Manufacturing in Braham and Benike Construction in Rochester.

Aaron Benike of Benike Construction said his company finds new skilled workers primarily through craft feeder programs like Workforce Development, Inc., a non-profit that matches private needs to public programs. The company also draws from union apprenticeship programs. But Benike says he “can only handle so many apprentices if he wants to get his business done on time and on budget.” With his business pressures, he needs skilled people, and he needs them now.

A new survey from Minnesota’s Association of General Contractors highlights the difficulties this presents. According to the Star Tribune, the survey

calls into question the effectiveness of existing programs meant to train skilled craft workers of all backgrounds. Minnesota businesses responding said roughly four in 10 “craft personnel” coming out of local pipeline programs were poorly trained. Roughly half had had only a “fair” level of training, survey respondents said.

The training programs that perform best, on average, are those that “make business the primary customer,” according to Steve Grove, commissioner of Minnesota’s Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED). The Star Tribune points out that

programs pairing technical schools with specific employers seem to work…, especially when those businesses provide the schools with the kind of machines on which graduates will work.

“A guarantee of employment is also critical,” said Kent Olson, a professor of applied economics at the U.

Loren Nelson of Aurelius Manufacturing emphasizes that on-the-job training also plays a vital role for financial and logistical reasons. His company

pulls workers off the floor and pays them to sit in front of a 50-inch television set to learn advanced skills from an instructor at a remote site. [Nelson] favors training in bite-sized bits—”stackable skills,” he calls them—that let students succeed in small ways that build on each other as employees demonstrate more sophisticated levels of competence and certification.

Aurelius is also finding it necessary to increase automation. “I’m buying machines that help one guy do the work of two because I only have one guy,” Nelson told the Star Tribune.

Elizabeth Kautz, mayor of Burnsville, added a perspective on the skills training issue from the “supply side.” Kautz oversees a city

whose high school has piloted some of the state’s most aggressive promotion of technical and vocational education. That includes an auto mechanic curriculum paired with a local car dealership. [The high school] also hopes to explode the idea that a four-year college degree gives you more status than a two-year technical program or certified skills.

The mayor’s mantra, one that can go a long way toward solving the talent crisis for skilled craft workers, is a tough sell. But she keeps trying.

“People with a technical education,” Kautz said, “can come out with a job that pays $60,000 to $70,000 a year with no debt.”